Characterizing and predicting the Nelson-Salassa syndrome

J Neurosurg. 2017 Dec;127(6):1277-1287. doi: 10.3171/2016.9.JNS161163. Epub 2017 Jan 13.


OBJECTIVE Nelson-Salassa syndrome (NSS) is a rare consequence of bilateral adrenalectomy (ADX) for refractory hypercortisolism due to Cushing disease (CD). Although classically defined by rapid growth of a large, invasive, adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH)-secreting pituitary tumor after bilateral ADX that causes cutaneous hyperpigmentation, visual disturbance, and high levels of ACTH, clinical experience suggests more variability. METHODS The authors conducted a retrospective chart review of all patients 18 years and older with a history of bilateral ADX for CD, adequate pituitary MRI, and at least 2 years of clinical follow-up. Statistical tests included Student's t-test, chi-square test, Fisher's exact test, multivariate analysis, and derived receiver operating characteristic curves. RESULTS Between 1956 and 2015, 302 patients underwent bilateral ADX for the treatment of hypercortisolism caused by CD; 88 had requisite imaging and follow-up (mean 16 years). Forty-seven patients (53%) had radiographic progression of pituitary disease and were diagnosed with NSS. Compared with patients who did not experience progression, those who developed NSS were significantly younger at the time of CD diagnosis (33 vs 44 years, p = 0.007) and at the time of bilateral ADX (35 vs 49 years, p = 0.007), had larger tumors at the time of CD diagnosis (6 mm vs 1 mm, p = 0.03), and were more likely to have undergone external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT, 43% vs 12%, p = 0.005). Among NSS patients, the mean tumor growth was 7 mm/yr (SE 6 mm/yr); the median tumor growth was 3 mm/yr. Prevalence of pathognomonic symptoms was low; the classic triad occurred in 9%, while hyperpigmentation without visual field deficit was observed in 23%, and 68% remained asymptomatic despite radiographic disease progression. NSS required treatment in 14 patients (30%). CONCLUSIONS NSS is a prevalent sequela of CD after bilateral ADX and affects more than 50% of patients. However, although radiological evidence of NSS is common, it is most often clinically indolent, with only a small minority of patients developing the more aggressive disease phenotype characterized by clinically meaningful symptoms and indications for treatment. Young age at the time of CD diagnosis or treatment with bilateral ADX, large tumor size at CD diagnosis, and EBRT are associated with progression to NSS and may be markers of aggressiveness.

Keywords: ACTH = adrenocorticotropin hormone; ADX = adrenalectomy; CD = Cushing disease; Cushing disease; EBRT = external-beam radiation therapy; NSS = Nelson-Salassa syndrome; Nelson's syndrome; Nelson-Salassa syndrome; SRS = stereotactic radiosurgery; TSS = transsphenoidal surgery; bilateral adrenalectomy; corticotropin; external-beam radiation therapy; pituitary surgery; stereotactic radiosurgery; transsphenoidal surgery.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenalectomy / adverse effects*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nelson Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Nelson Syndrome / diagnostic imaging
  • Nelson Syndrome / etiology
  • Pituitary ACTH Hypersecretion / surgery
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult