Demyelinating disease versus tumor in surgical neuropathology. Clues to a correct pathological diagnosis

Am J Surg Pathol. 1993 Jun;17(6):537-45. doi: 10.1097/00000478-199306000-00001.


Clinical presentations as well as radiological and histopathological findings in biopsies from patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) or other demyelinating disorders of the central nervous system are sometimes misleading, resulting in an erroneous diagnosis of brain or spinal cord tumor. We report 17 patients who presented with symptoms mimicking those of brain (14 cases) or spinal cord (three cases) tumors. Computerized tomography or magnetic resonance imaging studies or both were interpreted as consistent with a tumor in each case. All patients underwent surgery, and all 17 pathological specimens were eventually diagnosed as showing demyelinating disease, usually consistent with MS. In each case we examined a variety of histological features and immunohistochemical studies and addressed their relative importance in considering the diagnosis of MS. All cases showed perivascular lymphocytic inflammation with variable amounts of macrophage infiltration, necrosis, and edema. The hypercellularity of the lesions and the presence of atypical reactive astrocytes with mitotic figures were the disturbing features that might have led to the erroneous diagnosis of an astrocytic neoplasm. Immunohistochemistry for astrocytic (glial fibrillary acidic protein) and macrophage (HAM-56) markers are helpful in evaluating biopsies. Our results emphasize the need to perform special stains (i.e., for myelin and axons) that demonstrate myelin loss and relative preservation of axons and allow a correct diagnosis.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Edema / etiology
  • Central Nervous System Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Central Nervous System Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Child
  • Demyelinating Diseases / complications
  • Demyelinating Diseases / diagnosis
  • Demyelinating Diseases / pathology*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myelin Sheath / ultrastructure
  • Spinal Cord / pathology