Diagnostic utility of aquaporin-4 in the analysis of active demyelinating lesions

Neurology. 2015 Jan 13;84(2):148-58. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000001126. Epub 2014 Dec 10.


Objective: To assess, in a surgical biopsy cohort of active demyelinating lesions, the diagnostic utility of aquaporin-4 (AQP4) immunohistochemistry in identifying neuromyelitis optica (NMO) or NMO spectrum disorder (NMOSD) and describe pathologic features that should prompt AQP4 immunohistochemical analysis and AQP4-immunoglobulin G (IgG) serologic testing.

Methods: This was a neuropathologic cohort study of 20 surgical biopsies (19 patients; 11 cord/9 brain), performed because of diagnostic uncertainty, interpreted as active demyelinating disease and containing 2 or more of the following additional features: tissue vacuolation, granulocytic infiltrates, or astrocyte injury.

Results: AQP4 immunoreactivity was lost in 18 biopsies and increased in 2. Immunopathologic features of the AQP4 loss cohort were myelin vacuolation (18), dystrophic astrocytes and granulocytes (17), vascular hyalinization (16), macrophages containing glial fibrillary acid protein (GFAP)-positive debris (14), and Creutzfeldt-Peters cells (0). All 14 cases with available serum tested positive for AQP4-IgG after biopsy. Diagnosis at last follow-up was NMO/NMOSD (15) and longitudinally extensive transverse myelitis (1 each relapsing and single). Immunopathologic features of the AQP4 increased cohort were macrophages containing GFAP-positive debris and granulocytes (2), myelin vacuolation (1), dystrophic astrocytes (1), Creutzfeldt-Peters cells (1), and vascular hyalinization (1). Diagnosis at last follow-up was multiple sclerosis (MS) and both tested AQP4-IgG seronegative after biopsy.

Conclusions: AQP4 immunohistochemistry with subsequent AQP4-IgG testing has diagnostic utility in identifying cases of NMO/NMOSD. This study highlights the importance of considering NMOSD in the differential diagnosis of tumefactive brain or spinal cord lesions. AQP4-IgG testing may avert biopsy and avoid ineffective therapies if these patients are erroneously treated for MS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aquaporin 4 / immunology*
  • Astrocytes / pathology*
  • Autoantibodies / immunology*
  • Biopsy
  • Brain / immunology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Demyelinating Autoimmune Diseases, CNS / diagnosis
  • Demyelinating Autoimmune Diseases, CNS / immunology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin G / immunology*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Inflammation
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnosis*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / immunology
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology*
  • Neuromyelitis Optica / diagnosis*
  • Neuromyelitis Optica / immunology
  • Spinal Cord / immunology*
  • Spinal Cord / pathology
  • Young Adult


  • AQP4 protein, human
  • Aquaporin 4
  • Autoantibodies
  • Immunoglobulin G