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Cartersville Medical Center

Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy


PML is a rare progressive disease of the nervous system. It is caused by a viral infection of the cells that produce myelin.

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PML is caused by a specific papovavirus, known as JC virus. Many people get this infection in childhood. It produces no illness and generally does not infect the nervous system. It reactivates later in life in people who have suppressed immune systems. The virus damages oligodendrocytes, the cells in the central nervous system (CNS) which produce myelin, the material that wraps around nerves. This impairs nerve function.

Risk Factors

PML is most common in people with suppressed immune systems. Suppressed immune systems may be the result of:

  • HIV/AIDS (most common)
  • Leukemia and lymphoma
  • Organ transplant
  • Cancer
  • Chronic steroid therapy
  • Rare inherited immunodeficiencies
  • Certain medications, such as natalizumab, a medication used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS)


Symptoms progress over weeks and may include:

  • Vision problems
  • Speech pronunciation problems
  • Coordination loss
  • Memory loss
  • Weakness in limbs
  • Behavioral changes
  • Changes in thinking
  • A loss of language capability— aphasia
  • Seizures
  • Sensory loss


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include:

  • MRI scan —used to take images of brain structures (key in the diagnosis)
  • Lumbar puncture —to evaluate cerebrospinal fluid
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Brain biopsy


Treatment focuses on strategies to improve the immune system. If you have HIV, your doctor will most likely prescribe antiretroviral medications to treat this condition. If PML has resulted from the drug natalizumab, your doctor will have you stop taking this drug and may recommend a plasma exchange to remove the drug from your blood system.


There are no current guidelines to prevent exposure to the JC virus. If you have a suppressed immune system, get treatment to minimize your risk.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 06/2015 -
  • Update Date: 06/02/2014 -
  • AIDS Information, Education, Action, Awareness

  • National Organization for Rare Disorders

  • Canadian AIDS Society

  • Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders

  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). AETC National Resource Center website. Available at: Updated May 1, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2014.

  • NINDS progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at Updated February 14, 2014. Accessed June 2, 2014.

  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated October 1, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2014.

  • Warnke C, Menge T, Hartung HP, et al. Natalizumab and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy: what are the causal factors and can it be avoided? Arch Neurol. 2010;67(8):923-930.

The health information in this Health Library is provided by a third party. Cartersville Medical Center does not in any way create the content of this information. It is provided solely for informational purposes. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical care provided by a physician. Always consult with your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. Do not rely on information on this site as a tool for self-diagnosis. If you have a medical emergency, call 911.