Background: Primary central nervous system non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL-CNS) is an enigmatic disease of uncertain origin. At the Massachusetts General Hospital, 104 patients with NHL-CNS were seen from 1958 through 1989. An impression of changes in the frequency of diagnosis, character of the tumors, and therapy for this disease prompted this study of the pathologic features, clinical data, and natural history of this tumor in these 104 patients.
Methods: Histologic slides (neurosurgical specimens and autopsy tissues) were available for 99 patients. The tumors were classified by the Working Formulation classification. Immunostaining data and all clinical data were retrieved from the relevant offices and hospital charts.
Results: Primary central nervous system non-Hodgkin's lymphoma tripled in frequency (5.66 cases per year in 1978-89 versus 1.75 cases per year in 1958-77) and now represents 6.6% of all primary brain neoplasms (versus 3.3% before 1978; chi 2 = 17.52, P < 0.01). For the 99 tumors histologically classified, 89% were high grade. Intermediate grade lymphomas, once the second most common subtype, have disappeared since 1983. All tumors had diffuse architecture; 77% (including all 11 patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were large cell subtypes. Two cases were intravascular lymphoma. With one exception, all of the 41 tumors evaluated were B-cell types; 32 of 40 had monotypic surface immunoglobulin. There was 1 T-cell lymphoma. Of 64 tumor recurrences, 29 were at the initially defined site; 12 were in the leptomeninges, 29 were in other sites in the neuraxis, and 8 were in systemic sites. Systemic metastases have not occurred since 1984. Median survival for the 68 patients who survived after diagnostic surgery and for whom follow-up information could be obtained was 19 months; 9 months for those with high grade tumors and 30.5 months for those with intermediate grade tumors. This difference was not significant (P = 0.13). A separate set of seven patients had focal tumorlike lymphoid infiltrates composed of benign-appearing lymphocytes, which were associated with good long term survival. The differential histologic diagnosis of NHL-CNS was occasionally difficult, and the spectrum of this differential was broader than generally stated.
Conclusions: Primary central nervous system non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has increased in frequency even in nonimunocompromised patient populations. This increase has been accompanied by the disappearance of intermediate grade histologic types, suggesting a fundamental shift in the biology of the neoplasms. The introduction of chemotherapeutic regimens appears to have altered the natural history such that systemic metastases outside the central nervous system no longer occur, and there are now some long term survivors of this formerly uniformly fatal disease.