Cognitive Deficits Following Intensive Care
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Background: Illnesses that necessitate intensive care can impair cognitive function severely over the long term, leaving patients less able to cope with the demands of everyday living and markedly lowering their quality of life. There has not yet been any comprehensive study of the cognitive sequelae of critical illness among non-surgical patients treated in intensive care. The purpose of this review is to present the available study findings on cognitive deficits in such patients, with particular attention to prevalence, types of deficit, clinical course, risk factors, prevention, and treatment.
Methods: This review is based on pertinent publications retrieved by a selective search in MEDLINE.
Results: The literature search yielded 3360 hits, among which there were 14 studies that met our inclusion criteria. 17–78% of patients had cognitive deficits after discharge from the intensive care unit; most had never had a cognitive deficit before. Cognitive impairment often persisted for up to several years after discharge (0.5 to 9 years) and tended to improve over time. The only definite risk factor is delirium.
Conclusion: Cognitive dysfunction is a common sequela of the treatment of non-surgical patients in intensive care units. It is a serious problem for the affected persons and an increasingly important socio-economic problem as well. The effective management of delirium is very important. General conclusions are hard to draw from the available data because of heterogeneous study designs, varying methods of measurement, and differences among patient cohorts. Further studies are needed so that study designs and clinical testing procedures can be standardized and effective measures for prevention and treatment can be identified.
The term “post-intensive care syndrome” (PICS) refers to long-term functional impairment arising after treatment in an intensive care unit. The syndrome is characterized primarily by bodily impairment and by limitations of cognitive functional ability and mental health (1).
As a long-term phenomenon, PICS differs from delirium, an acute organic dysfunction of the brain that may be reversible once its cause has been eliminated. Cognitive deficits after critical illness have a negative effect on competence in everyday life and on the quality of life (2). The patient’s reintegration into the workplace, productivity at work, and financial income are particularly affected (3). The stress level on relatives caring for the patient is high (4). Further major socioeconomic consequences of PICS include the costs of therapy, nursing care, and rehospitalizations (5–8).
The long-term effects of treatment in an intensive care unit on cognitive function have only recently become a major topic for research in intensive care medicine. Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) is a current focus of study [9–13], but cognitive deficits can also arise in patients treated in intensive care units who have not undergone surgery.
Reviews of this topic to date have concerned mixed cohorts containing both surgical and non-surgical patients. This review is focused on studies of cognitive deficits arising exclusively in patients who were treated in intensive care units without having undergone surgery. The primary objective is to determine the prevalence of cognitive deficits in such patients; the secondary objective is to gain an overview of the nature, course, and severity of the cognitive deficits, as well as of risk factors and measures for prevention and treatment.
The results are relevant to all persons who participate in the care of patients with cognitive dysfunction or with a severe illness necessitating intensive care. Intensive care physicians, nurses, and therapists can be sensitized to the long-term cognitive effects of the treatment they provide. They must be able to recognize risk factors and initiate preventive measures. If an affected patient presents with cognitive difficulties to a general practitioner’s office or other outpatient facility, a correct diagnosis will have to be made. Finally, knowledge about PICS can also help the patient’s relatives put the problem in the proper context so that they can give the patient optimal support (4).
We conducted a selective literature search in the MEDLINE/PubMed database for articles indexed up to and including 25 May 2019. The search strategy was based on several synonyms for “critical illness” and “cognitive dysfunction,” as follows: “(cognitive dysfunction OR cognitive impairment OR cognitive sequelae OR cognitive decline OR cognitive disability) AND (critical illness OR ICU OR intensive care).” Additionally, we carried out an analogous search in the reference lists of studies and reviews chosen by expert opinion.
Selection of studies
One of the authors (JK) screened all search hits by title and abstract in accordance with the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Two authors (JK, JVE) then selected studies meeting the inclusion criteria on the basis of the full texts.
The inclusion criteria were as follows:
- original studies on the prevalence of cognitive deficits in non-surgical patients treated in an intensive care unit, as determined by a standardized testing procedure
- publication in either English or German
- patients over 18 years old
Studies were excluded if the patient cohort included patients of the following types:
- postoperative/surgical patients
- patients whose indication for treatment was trauma
- patients with cardiac arrest and/or status post cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- patients with primary neurological disease.
Data extraction and analysis
Three of the authors (JK, JVE, FB) established the categories for data extraction by expert opinion and divided these categories into three sets; then each of these three authors extracted data from all studies in one set of categories and subsequently checked over the data extraction performed by the other two authors in the remaining categories.
Unclear points and controversial questions were discussed and settled by all authors by common agreement, with all authors participating on equal terms. We did not carry out a meta-analysis, as this would probably have been unhelpful in view of the heterogeneity of the study findings. Instead, we chose to represent the extracted data in descriptive terms.
The literature search in the database yielded 3360 hits; further screening by titles and abstracts left 233 articles, whose full texts were then read for suitability. The analogous search in the reference lists yielded a single study on sepsis patients (14). A total of 14 studies were included in the analysis (eFigure).
Diagnoses on admission and patient population
The diagnoses on admission to the intensive care unit included the following: acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), 9 studies; sepsis, 3 studies; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), one study. A further study concerned a mixed patient population with ARDS, septic shock, or cardiogenic shock (15). The mean age of the patients in the studies ranged from 31 to 76.7 years (14, 16). The sex distribution was the same across studies. In 13 studies, patients were artificially ventilated. The APACHE-II scores (a measure of the severity of disease) ranged from 18.1 to 23.5 (2, 17–20).
17–78% of patients discharged from an intensive care unit sustained long-term cognitive deficits (Table 1). Baseline data on cognitive performance ability were only obtained in a single study. Among survivors of severe sepsis, 6.1% had already had relevant cognitive deficits before admission to the intensive care unit; after discharge, 16.7% did (14).
In two studies, demographically matched control groups were used; in one of them, the matched controls were not hospitalized, while, in the other, they were hospitalized, but not treated in an intensive care unit (14, 21). Iwashyna et al. showed that treatment in an intensive care unit for sepsis increased the frequency of moderate to severe cognitive dysfunction compared to the control group (14). Ambrosino et al. compared the prevalence of cognitive deficits in patients with exacerbated COPD with their prevalence in the control group: the resulting figures were 39% vs. 3% on discharge, 8% vs. 5% at 3 months, and 17% vs. 5% at 6 months ).
In seven studies, patients were tested at multiple time points (Table 1, Figure) (2, 15, 20–24). A trend toward improvement compared to the condition on discharge was seen within the first year, but 17–63% of the patients were still cognitively impaired on their last follow-up 0.25 to 2 years after discharge. These studies yielded no data on the prevalence of the different degrees of severity of cognitive dysfunction.
Risk factors and treatment approaches
Hopkins et al. described a correlation between the duration of hypoxemia (oxygen saturation <90%) and the severity of cognitive deficits at the time of discharge in patients who were hospitalized in intensive care units because of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) (2, 17). Hyperglycemia (maximal blood glucose >153.5 mg/dL), hypoglycemia (mean blood glucose <108 mg/dL), and highly variable blood glucose values were likewise associated with a higher probability of the development of long-term cognitive deficits. The duration of treatment in the intensive care unit was relevant as well (19).
Multiple studies have concerned potential therapeutic approaches during intensive care, e.g., dietary regimens (restricted vs. full) (23) or statin administration (24). These treatments have not been found to lower the incidence of cognitive dysfunction.
Most of the included studies were prospective studies carried out in single centers (eTable 1). The studies were performed over a 28-year period from 1985 to 2013. The periods of follow-up ranged from 0.5 to 9 years (21, 25). The most commonly used time point for testing was one year after discharge from intensive care.
Four studies employed time points for testing that were two years or more after the discharge from intensive care (2, 16, 25, 26); one of these studies had a prospective design (2). In six of the 14 studies (42.9%), patients were included in the study upon admission to the intensive care unit. In the remaining 8 studies, patients were included either upon discharge or at their first follow-up.
Patients who were already cognitively impaired before undergoing intensive care were excluded from five studies. Reported in-hospital mortality varied widely, from 10.9% (24) to 43.9% (20), even after correction for censored patients, i.e., those who declined or were lost to further follow-up (Table 2).
Testing procedures used, and affected cognitive domains
A wide variety of testing procedures were used to study a similarly wide variety of cognitive domains, and varying definitions of cognitive dysfunction were applied in different studies (eTable 1, Figure). Four studies (28.6%) exclusively used cognitive screening instruments (e.g., the MMSE), questionnaires, or structured interviews (e.g., TICS, IQCODE). Ten studies (71.4%) employed more extensive neuropsychological testing batteries. There was no correlation between the type of cognitive testing used (screening vs. neuropsychological test battery) and the reported prevalence of cognitive impairment after intensive care.
Multiple cognitive domains were tested in all studies. The most commonly tested domains were memory, executive function, perception, attention, motor function, and speech comprehension. Deficits commonly affected multiple domains, with variation in the domains that were affected.
These findings show that cognitive deficits are common in persons who have undergone treatment in intensive care units (without surgery). 17–78% of the patients were cognitively impaired after intensive care; in general, the impairments were new, they were most severe immediately after discharge, and they lasted a long time (at least 0.5 to 9 years).
The patients in this study did not differ to any significant extent from patients in other studies with mixed cohorts (both surgical and non-surgical patients) with respect to the prevalence and course of cognitive dysfunction (27–40, e1–e7) (eTable 3, eTable 4). Cognitive impairment increases after intensive care, compared either to baseline or to a control group, in mixed patient cohorts just as in exclusively non-surgical ones (31, 32, 34, 39). Cognitive impairment in mixed patient cohorts is usually mild or moderate (27, 28, 30, 32, 36, 38, e1). In studies with exclusively non-surgically treated patients, the prevalence of individual grades of cognitive impairment was not reported.
As an illustration, the prospective BRAIN-ICU cohort study revealed, in a mixed patient population with 18% surgical patients, an increase in the prevalence of cognitive impairment from 6% at baseline to 40% (for a test result 1.5 standard deviations [SD] below the reference mean, comparable to the effect of moderate traumatic brain injury) and 26% (for a test result 2 SD below the reference mean, comparable to mild Alzheimer dementia) three months after discharge. The corresponding figures at one year were 34% and 24% (e1).
This is a problem of considerable socioeconomic importance, as persons with cognitive deficits often face long-lasting impairments in everyday competence and in the quality of life.
Neuroradiological and neuropathological studies have provided evidence of diffuse brain damage. There are global and local patterns of atrophy, as well as cortical and subcortical lesions, particularly in the corpus callosum, the hippocampus, and the basal ganglia (7, e8, e9). Delirium has also been linked to abnormalities of brain structure. It may be that the pathogenetic mechanism of acute brain dysfunction goes on to produce chronic structural changes that impair cognition over the long term (e10).
This pathogenetic mechanism seems to be of a multifactorial nature, with contributory roles played by metabolic factors (such as hyper- and hypoglycemia), hemodynamic factors (such as hypotension and hypoxemia), inflammation, and toxic influences (from sedative, analgesic, and anticholinergic drugs, among others) (7, 19, 33, 40, e3, e8, e9, e11–e13). Some of these factors may generate and sustain a systemic inflammatory reaction. It is thought that neuro-inflammatory processes induced by spreading of the inflammatory reaction across the blood-brain barrier cause neuronal injury (e12).
Risk factors for cognitive deficts after intensive care
Delirium is the best-studied risk factor for long-term cognitive deficits after intensive care, in both non-surgical and mixed surgical/non-surgical patient cohorts. Denke et al. showed an association between the duration of delirium and impaired cognitive ability in a cohort of ARDS patients (e14). Similarly, the BRAIN-ICU study revealed that a longer duration of delirium was independently associated with poorer cognitive test results at 3 and 12 months in a mixed patient cohort (e1).
It has not yet been conclusively determined whether old age is an independent risk factor (8). The patient cohorts in the studies considered in this review all contained patients of all age groups, but no age-dependent increase was found in the prevalence of cognitive deficits after intensive care. Nor was age found to have a significant effect in the BRAIN-ICU study (e1). The results of other studies with mixed patient cohorts appear to support the hypothesis of a higher risk at older ages, but long-term cognitive deficits can clearly arise in patients of any age, including children (e15– e17).
Other risk factors, including hypo- and hyperglycemia, have been confirmed in studies with mixed patient cohorts (e18). As for hypoxemia, the evidence is mixed (e11). The severity of illness, as measured by the APACHE-II score, seems to play a lesser role (e9). In summary, the current state of the evidence is weak. Only delirium can now be considered a clearly established risk factor.
The prevention of cognitive dysfunction after intensive care
The effective prevention and treatment of delirium might, therefore, be essential for the prevention of long-term deficits. Delirium in intensive care is the target of treatment strategies such as the so-called ABCDEF bundle (e19, e20), and it counts as one of ten quality indicators in intensive care medicine (e21, e22) (Box). Further recommendations include early mobilization, physiotherapy, and other early rehabilitative measures, as well as music therapy, the creation of individual rehabilitation plans, and the keeping of an intensive-care diary (e9, e13, e17, e23–e25).
Approaches to treatment
There have been hardly any studies of specific treatments to date (e26). The RETURN study showed that a focused, multidisciplinary rehabilitation program consisting of cognitive stimulation, physiotherapy, and ergotherapy improved the cognitive ability of the intervention group compared to a control group that underwent non-protocol-based rehabilitation (e27).
Other types of combined therapy with intensified cognitive components are also promising, but only a few have been evaluated to date (e7, e8, e28, e29). It seems advisable to start specific treatment as early as possible, even while the patient is still in the intensive care unit (e26, e30, e31).
Although many aspects remain unclear, a number of recommendations can already be made for clinical practice (e9):
- Non-pharmacological treatment approaches play the most important role in the prevention and treatment of cognitive impairment.
- Structured, multimodal, and quality-indicator-oriented therapeutic concepts are helpful for the provision of patient-specific treatment and for the minimization of risk factors.
- The effective management of delirium is very important.
- Patients should be followed over the long term in outpatient and inpatient structures with special interdisciplinary competence.
- All professionals who care for the affected patients and their relatives in a variety of contexts should provide information about the long-term risk of cognitive impairment after intensive care, thereby increasing understanding among the persons concerned and helping them achieve their objectives and priorities.
We systematically searched only one database, and we limited the analysis to publications in English or German. The wide variation in prevalence figures can be attributed in part to the heterogeneity of patient cohorts, the non-uniform testing procedures, and the differing time points of evaluation (e9, e12). In view of these differences, no meta-analysis could be performed.
Many of the studies provided less than full information. In most of them, no baseline data were obtained on the patients’ cognitive status before the .initiation of intensive care; these studies are thus uninformative with respect to a central question, namely, whether the observed cognitive deficits arose de novo or as a worsening of pre-existing deficits. Half of the studies provided no data on mortality in the intensive care unit. Case numbers were often low, and patients were often enrolled in the studies only after their discharge from intensive care. This late time point of patient inclusion, along with the high rates of loss to follow-up in some of the studies, may have resulted in a selection bias favoring patients with greater-than-average willingness and ability to participate in the studies. A bias of this kind would make it difficult to validly answer the question whether risk-factor modification during intensive care might improve the clinical outcome.
The marked heterogeneity among studies with regard to testing procedures and defining criteria makes it difficult to assess the prevalence (and various other aspects) of cognitive impairment after illnesses that necessitate intensive care. It is, therefore, very important that the evaluation of cognitive function should be standardized by the use of consensus-approved measurement instruments, along with the simultaneous acquisition of data on relevant covariables, such as sedation and pain scores.
In future studies, baseline data should be recorded, the clinical course during treatment in intensive care—including delirium, if it arises—should be precisely characterized, and losses to follow-up should be minimized. More prospective, multicenter, interdisciplinary research projects are needed to give us robust information about this long-term dimension of intensive care medicine. In particular, the risk factors should be better characterized, and opportunities for intervention should be identified (e9, e11).
Conflict of interest statement
Dr. Borchers has received reimbursement of travel expenses from Forum für medizinische Fortbildung FomF GmbH and from Asklepios Klinik St. Georg, as well as lecture honoraria from Charité Healthcare Services GmbH, Forum für medizinische Fortbildung FomF GmbH, and Klinikum Ernst von Bergmann GmbH.
Dr. Weiss has served as a paid consultant for Orion Pharma Ltd. and has received lecture honoraria from Orion Pharma Ltd. and Dr. F. Köhler Chemie GmbH.
Prof. Spies has received payment for carrying out research and clinical studies from Aridis Pharmaceutical Inc., B. Braun Melsungen AG, Drägerwerk AG & Co. KGaA, Grünenthal GmbH, Infectopharm GmbH, Sedana Medical Ltd., and Sintetica GmbH.
The remaining authors state that they have no conflict of interest.
Manuscript submitted on 6 February 2019, revised version accepted on
16 July 2019.
Translated from the original German by Ethan Taub, M.D.
Dr. med. Julius Valentin Emmrich
Klinik für Neurologie mit Experimenteller Neurologie
Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin (CCM)
Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Cite this as:
Kohler J, Borchers F, Endres M, Weiss B, Spies C, Emmrich JV:
Cognitive deficits following intensive care. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2019; 116: 627–34. DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2019.0627
For eReferences please refer to:
Department of Neurology With Experimental Neurology, Charité—Universitätsmedizin Berlin: Joel Kohler, Prof. Dr. med. Matthias Endres, Dr. med. Julius Valentin Emmrich, MPhil
Department of Anesthesiology and Operative Intensive Care Medicine at Campus Benjamin Franklin Charité—Universitätsmedizin Berlin: Dr. med. Friedrich Borchers, Dr. med. Björn Weiss, Prof. Dr. med. Claudia Spies
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