Phenotypes and subphenotypes of delirium: a review of current categorisations and suggestions for progression

Emily M. L. Bowman*, Emma L. Cunningham, Valerie J. Page, Daniel F. McAuley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

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Delirium is a clinical syndrome occurring in heterogeneous patient populations. It affects 45–87% of critical care patients and is often associated with adverse outcomes including acquired dementia, institutionalisation, and death. Despite an exponential increase in delirium research in recent years, the pathophysiological mechanisms resulting in the clinical presentation of delirium are still hypotheses. Efforts have been made to categorise the delirium spectrum into clinically meaningful subgroups (subphenotypes), using psychomotor subtypes such as hypoactive, hyperactive, and mixed, for example, and also inflammatory and non-inflammatory delirium. Delirium remains, however, a constellation of symptoms resulting from a variety of risk factors and precipitants with currently no successful targeted pharmacological treatment. Identifying specific clinical and biological subphenotypes will greatly improve understanding of the relationship between the clinical symptoms and the putative pathways and thus risk factors, precipitants, natural history, and biological mechanism. This will facilitate risk factor mitigation, identification of potential methods for interventional studies, and informed patient and family counselling. Here, we review evidence to date and propose a framework to identify subphenotypes. Endotype identification may be done by clustering symptoms with their biological mechanism, which will facilitate research of targeted treatments. In order to achieve identification of delirium subphenotypes, the following steps must be taken: (1) robust records of symptoms must be kept at a clinical level. (2) Global collaboration must facilitate large, heterogeneous research cohorts. (3) Patients must be clustered for identification, validation, and mapping of subphenotype stability.
Original languageEnglish
Article number334
JournalCritical Care
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sep 2021


  • Delirium
  • Inattention
  • Disorientation
  • Awareness
  • Encephalopathy
  • Pathophysiology
  • Phenotype
  • Subphenotype
  • Endotype
  • Psychomotor Subtype


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