MRI Diagnosis of Clival Cancer and Sixth Nerve Palsy

J Neuroophthalmol. 2023 Mar 1;43(1):126-130. doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000001655. Epub 2022 Jul 13.


Background: Imaging diagnosis of clival cancer may be difficult, in part because of normal variation in marrow signal with aging. Identifying whether clival cancer has damaged the sixth cranial nerve is a further challenge because minimal clival abnormalities could impinge on the nerve, which travels very close to the clivus.

Methods: Two neuroradiologists, who were unaware of previous imaging and clinical diagnoses, reviewed MRI studies of 25 patients with cancer but no clival involvement and no sixth nerve palsy, 24 patients with clival cancer but without sixth nerve palsy, and 31 patients with clival cancer and sixth nerve palsy. The radiologists were tasked with determining whether there was clival cancer, whether there was a sixth nerve palsy and its laterality, and with indicating the pulse sequences used to make those determinations.

Results: Both neuroradiologists correctly identified all 25 cases with a normal clivus. In about half of those cases, they depended on finding a homogeneously bright marrow signal; in the remaining cases, they excluded cancer by determining that the clivus was not expanded and that there were no focal signal abnormalities. Both neuroradiologists correctly identified clival cancer in 54 (98%) of the 55 cases with and without sixth nerve palsy. In doing so, they relied mostly on clival expansion but also on focal signal abnormalities. Both neuroradiologists were at least 80% correct in identifying a sixth nerve palsy, but they often incorrectly identified a palsy in patients who did not have one. When there was a one-sided signal abnormality or the clivus was expanded in one direction, both neuroradiologists were accurate in identifying the side of the sixth nerve palsy.

Conclusion: Current MRI pulse sequences allow accurate differentiation of a normal from a cancerous clivus. When the marrow signal is not homogeneously bright in adults, cancer can be diagnosed on the basis of clival expansion or focal signal abnormalities. MRI is less accurate in predicting the presence of a sixth nerve palsy. However, the side of a unilateral palsy can be predicted when the clivus is clearly expanded in one direction or there is a focal signal abnormality on one side.

MeSH terms

  • Abducens Nerve
  • Abducens Nerve Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Abducens Nerve Diseases* / etiology
  • Adult
  • Cranial Fossa, Posterior / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Skull Base Neoplasms* / complications
  • Skull Base Neoplasms* / diagnosis