A familiar challenge for neuroradiologists and neuro-oncologists is differentiating between radiation treatment effect and disease progression in the CNS. Both entities are characterized by an increase in contrast enhancement on MRI and present with similar clinical signs and symptoms that may occur either in close temporal proximity to the treatment or later in the disease course. When radiation-related imaging changes or clinical deterioration are mistaken for disease progression, patients may be subject to unnecessary surgery and/or a change from otherwise effective therapy. Similarly, when disease progression is mistaken for treatment effect, a potentially ineffective therapy may be continued in the face of progressive disease. Here we describe the three types of radiation injury to the brain based on the time to development of signs and symptoms--acute, subacute and late--and then review specific imaging changes after intensity-modulated radiation therapy, stereotactic radiosurgery and brachytherapy. We provide an overview of these phenomena in the treatment of a wide range of malignant and benign CNS illnesses. Finally, we review the published data regarding imaging techniques under investigation to address this well-known problem.
Keywords: pseudoprogression; radiation treatment effect; radionecrosis; radiosurgery.