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Neurosyphilis is an infection of the brain or spinal cord. It occurs in persons with untreated syphilis many years after they are first infected.


Neurosyphilis is caused by Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that cause syphillis. It occurs about 10 - 20 years after a person is first infected with syphilis. Not everyone who has syphilis will develop this complication.

There are four different forms of neurosyphilis:

Asymptomatic neurosyphilis occurs before symptomatic syphilis.


Note: There may be no symptoms

Signs and tests

Signs include:

Blood tests can be done to detect substances produced by the bacteria that cause syphilis. The oldest test is the VDRL test.

Other tests include:

  • Fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption (FTA-ABS)
  • Rapid plasma reagin (RPR)
  • Treponema pallidum particle agglutination assay (TPPA)

In neurosyphilis, it is important to test the spinal fluid for signs of syphilis.

Tests to look for problems with the nervous system may include:

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

This is considered a life-threatening complication of syphilis. How well you do depends on how severe the neurosyphilis is before treatment.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have had syphilis in the past and now have signs of neurological problems.


The symptoms can get slowly worse.


Penicillin is used to treat neurosyphilis. The medicine may be given in various ways.

  • It may be injected into a vein every day for 10 - 14 days.
  • You may take probenecid by mouth 4 times a day, combined with daily muscle injections -- both for 10 - 14 days.

You must have follow-up blood tests and lumbar punctures for CSF fluid analysis at 3, 6, 12, and 24 months to make sure the infection is gone.

For information on treating syphilis, see the following articles:


Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the original syphilis infection can prevent neurosyphilis.


Hook EW. Syphilis. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 340.

Tramont EC. Treponema pallidum (syphilis). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2005: chap 235.

Screening for syphilis infection: Recommendation statement. Rockville MD, US Preventive Services Task Force: July 2008.

Review Date: 9/28/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Jatin M. Vyas, PhD, MD, Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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