Background: Cerebral malaria (CM) pathogenesis remains incompletely understood. Having shown low systemic levels of tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4), an enzymatic cofactor for neurotransmitter synthesis, we hypothesized that BH4 and BH4-dependent neurotransmitters would likewise be low in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in CM.
Methods: We prospectively enrolled Tanzanian children with CM and children with nonmalaria central nervous system conditions (NMCs). We measured CSF levels of BH4, neopterin, and BH4-dependent neurotransmitter metabolites, 3-O-methyldopa, homovanillic acid, and 5-hydroxyindoleacetate, and we derived age-adjusted z-scores using published reference ranges.
Results: Cerebrospinal fluid BH4 was elevated in CM (n=49) compared with NMC (n=51) (z-score 0.75 vs -0.08; P<.001). Neopterin was increased in CM (z-score 4.05 vs 0.09; P<.001), and a cutoff at the upper limit of normal (60 nmol/L) was 100% sensitive for CM. Neurotransmitter metabolite levels were overall preserved. A higher CSF BH4/BH2 ratio was associated with increased odds of survival (odds ratio, 2.94; 95% confidence interval, 1.03-8.33; P=.043).
Conclusion: Despite low systemic BH4, CSF BH4 was elevated and associated with increased odds of survival in CM. Coma in malaria is not explained by deficiency of BH4-dependent neurotransmitters. Elevated CSF neopterin was 100% sensitive for CM diagnosis and warrants further assessment of its clinical utility for ruling out CM in malaria-endemic areas.