Acute demyelination: diagnostic difficulties and the need for brain biopsy

Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2003 Nov;145(11):961-9; discussion 969. doi: 10.1007/s00701-003-0113-3.


Background: Despite the rapid development in neuro-imaging over the past two decades, ring like contrast-enhancing lesions on CCT or MRI still may pose a diagnostic challenge. The main differential diagnoses of these lesions include metastatic carcinoma, high-grade glioma and brain abscess. Acute demyelination seldom turns out to be the underlying pathology.

Method: Retrospective analysis was done on six patients with acute demyelination treated at our neurosurgical department between 1990 and 2001. Clinical, radiological, PET, intra-operative and histological findings were evaluated.

Findings: In five patients, the diagnosis of acute demyelination was established by histopathological evaluation of stereotactic biopsy specimen, in the sixth patient following microsurgical extirpation of the lesion. Neuropathology revealed demyelination with the presence of myelin-phagocytosing macrophages. In addition, lymphocytic infiltrates were present. Symptoms and signs improved significantly after high-dose steroid therapy.

Conclusions: Despite CNS tissue destruction, necrosis and cyst formation are not usually found in demyelinating disease, being rather more common in young patients with ring-like contrast-enhancing lesions on CCT and MRI. Though an incorrect diagnosis can lead to a potentially fatal therapeutic intervention, histological diagnosis should be made in all cases. Due to minimum morbidity, stereotactic biopsy is the method of choice to obtain representative specimens for histological diagnosis. Open microsurgery of these lesions is not indicated since conservative medical treatment with steroids results in a favourable outcome in most cases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biopsy*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Demyelinating Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Stereotaxic Techniques*