Brain stem blood flow, pupillary response, and outcome in patients with severe head injuries

Neurosurgery. 1999 May;44(5):941-8. doi: 10.1097/00006123-199905000-00005.


Objective: Acute pupillary dilation in a head-injured patient is a neurological emergency. Pupil dilation is thought to be the result of uncal herniation causing mechanical compression of the IIIrd cranial nerve and subsequent brain stem compromise. However, not all patients with herniation have fixed and dilated pupils, and not all patients with nonreactive, enlarged pupils have uncal herniation. Therefore, we have tested an alternative hypothesis that a decrease in brain stem blood flow (BBF) is a more frequent cause of mydriasis and brain stem symptomatology after severe head injury. We determined the relation of BBF to outcome and pupillary response in patients with severe head injuries.

Methods: One hundred sixty-two patients with a Glasgow Coma Scale score of 8 or less underwent stable xenon computed tomographic blood flow determination at the level of the superior colliculus, and this blood flow was correlated with pupillary features, intracranial pressure, computed tomographic scan pathology, and outcome.

Results: A BBF of less than 40 ml/100 g/min was significantly associated with poor outcome (P < 0.009). In patients with bilaterally nonreactive pupils, the BBF was 30.5+/-16.8 ml/100 g/min, and in those with normally reactive pupils, the BBF was 43.8+/-18.7 ml/100 g/min (P < 0.001). Intracranial pressure and the presence of a brain stem lesion observed on the computed tomographic scan did not correlate with BBF, pupillary size, or reactivity. Unfavorable outcome at 12 months was directly related to age (P = 0.062) and inversely related to pupillary responsiveness (P = 0.0006), pupil size (P = 0.005), and BBF of less than 40 ml/100 g/min (P = 0.009).

Conclusion: These findings suggest that pupillary dilation is associated with decreased BBF and that ischemia, rather than mechanical compression of the IIIrd cranial nerve, is an important causal factor. More important, pupil dilation may be an indicator of ischemia of the brain stem. If cerebral blood flow and cerebral perfusion pressure can be rapidly restored in the patient with severe head injury who has dilated pupils, the prognosis may be good.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology
  • Brain Stem / blood supply*
  • Child
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / diagnostic imaging
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Pressure / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Pupil / physiology*
  • Regional Blood Flow / physiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Superior Colliculi / blood supply
  • Superior Colliculi / diagnostic imaging
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed