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Neoplastic meningitis


Neoplastic or malignant meningitis, also called meningitis carcinomatosa and leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, is the development of meningitis due to infiltration of the subarachnoid space by cancerous cells. Malignant cells come from primary cancer such as breast cancer or from a primary brain tumor like medulloblastoma. Neoplastic Meningitis (NM) was first reported in the 1870s with the most common cause being breast cancer, lung cancer, and malignant melanoma.

Causes | From Primary Cancer to the meninges

NM is a secondary cancer meaning that it is the result of neoplastic cells that have metastasized from a primary cancer site. These cancers develop an enzyme that is able to break down blood vessels at a microscopic level. These cells enter the blood vessels and travel across the body. Once the brain is reached, they break down the Blood-Brain Barrier to enter the Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF). There the cancerous cells seed and disseminate into the leptomeninges which are composed of the arachnoid and the pia. The CSF continues to carry neoplastic cells through the brain tracts and spreads the cancerous cells.

Since NM is a result of primary cancer metastasis and can develop from primary brain tumors or parenchymal metastasis when tumor cells are lodged in small central nervous system (CNS) vasculature, causing local ischemia and vessel damage which result in tumor spillage into the Virchow-Robin spaces and providing access to the subarachnoid space.

Causes | Invasion Routes

Infiltration happens most often at the base of the brain, dorsal surface, and especially at the cauda equina (bundle of nerves occupying spinal column)which is largely due to the effect of gravity. Once in the CSF, malignant cells can extend along the membrane surfaces or spread freely in the CSF and attach to other locations. These cells have the ability to penetrate the pial membrane and invade the spinal cord and cranial nerves.

Causes | Infiltration to Spinal Cord

Infiltration from the subarachnoid space into the spinal cord occurs primarily along the perivascular tissues that surround blood vessels at the brain entrance. Infiltration from the anterior median fissure, a 3mm deep furrow on the anterior side of the spinal cord, to the anterior horn of the spinal cord, the ventral grey matter of the spinal cord, is found along the central artery. Direct infiltration of the nerve roots is also observed, mostly from the dorsal roots (the afferent sensory root of the spinal nerve) than the ventral roots (the efferent motor root of a spinal nerve).

With mild infiltration, tumor cells are found diffusely in the subarachnoid space from the cervical to sacral levels. In some cases however there are no differences between spine levels. Infiltration from the subarachnoid space into the spinal cord occurs mainly along the perivascular space of the white matter. However, in some cases, direct infiltration into the spinal cord parenchyma is found together with destruction of the pia mater.


3 affected domains of neurological function:

- Cerebral hemisphere (15%)

- Cranial Nerves (35%)

- Spinal cord and roots (60%)

Signs reported

- headache

- mental status change

- confusion

- cognitive impairment

- seizures

- hemiparesis

- gait instability

Other symptoms that are less common are dementia, autonomic dysfunction, cranial nerve abnormalities, spinal symptoms such as limb weakness and paresthesia, and bowel and bladder dysfunction. Diplopia is the most common symptom of cranial nerve dysfunction. Trigeminal sensory or motor loss, cochlear dysfunction, and optic neuropathy are also common findings. Spinal signs and symptoms include weakness, dermatomal or segmental sensory loss, and pain in the neck, back, or following radicular patterns.

Symptoms | Damage to Spinal Cord

NM diffused infiltration of tumor cells into the subarachnoid space may be associated with increased intracranial pressure, signs of

meningeal irritation, and damage to the cranial and spinal nerve roots.

- Circular necrosis of the white matter in the periphery of the spinal cord was also noted which probably resulted from circulatory disturbance secondary to tumor infiltration.

- Dorsal radiculopathy which is secondary ascending degeneration of the posterior funiculus may also occur due to malignant cells collecting or a presence of tumor which cause compression of the nerve.

- Tumor cell proliferation is observed around nerve roots as well as loss of myelinated nerve fibers and axonal swelling. In areas of tumor cells, infiltration of macrophages is observed. Nerve root infiltration has shown positive correlation with meningeal dissemination.

- Infiltration of the spinal cord parenchyma is found with destruction of the pia mater. Tumor cell infiltration is associated with spongy changes in the white matter of the spinal cord beneath the pia mater with demyelination, axonal swelling, and macrophage infiltration. Transverse necrosis of the spinal cord is usually marked with bleeding from tumor growth in the subarachnoid space and is the result of compression by the hematoma in the subarachnoid space.


The diagnosis of NM is based on the detection of malignant cells in the CSF, the demonstration of leptomeningeal tumor cell deposits on neuroimaging, or both. CSF examination is the most useful diagnostic tool for NM. Patients with suspected NM should undergo one or two lumbar punctures, cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), spinal MRI, and a radioisotope CSF flow study to rule out sites of CSF block. If the cytology remains negative and radiological studies are not definitive, consideration may be given to ventricular or lateral cervical spine CSF analysis based on the suspected site of predominant disease. Consideration of signs, symptoms, and neuroimaging can help with the placement to where CSF is drawn. Median time of diagnosis from initial primary cancer diagnosis is between 76 days and 17 months. NM diagnosis has been increasing and will continue to increase due to better primary care and longer survival time of cancer patients.

Difficulties in Diagonsis:

NM is multifocal and CSF at a particular site may show no abnormalities if the pathological site is far away. Only 50% of those suspected with NM are actually diagnosed with NM and only the presence of malignant cells in the CSF is diagnosis conclusive.


- MRI: Meningeal findings are described with the following characteristics: Nodular meningeal tumor, meningeal thickening >3 mm and a subjectively strong contrast enhancement. A smooth contrast enhancement of the meninges was judged to be typical for inflammatory, nonneoplastic meningitis.

- CSF cytology: is performed after drawing the CSF by lumbar puncture.

- Cytogenetic: measures chromosomal content of cells and fluorescence in situ hybridization which detects numerical and structural genetic aberrations as a sign of malignancy. This is especially useful for liquid tumors such as leukemia and lymphoma. Some of the techniques that achieve this are flow cytometry and DNA single-cell cytometry. However, cytogenetic only assist in diagnosis and is less preferred.

- Meningeal Biopsy: may be performed when all of the above criteria is inconclusive. Biopsy is only effective when performed at the region where there's enhancement on the MRI.

Diagnosis | Cerebral Spinal Fluid

Criteria for CSF abnormalities:

- Increased opening pressure (> 200mm of H2O)

- Increased Leukocytes (>4/mm3)

- Elevated protein (>50 mg/dL)

- Decreased glucose (<60 mg/dL)

Tumor Markers:

- Carcinoembryonic antigin (CEA)

- alpha-fetoprotein

- beta-human chorionic gonadotropin

- carbohydrate antigen19-9

- creatine-kinase BB

- isoenzyme

- tissue polypeptide antigen

- beta2-microglobulin,

- beta-glucoronidase

- lactate dehydrogenase isoenzyme-5

- vascular endothelial growth factor

These markers can be good indirect indicator of NM but most are not sensitive enough to improve cytogical diagnosis.

Avoiding false-negative

- Draw CSF from symptomatic or radiographically demonstrated disease.

- Draw large amount of CSF (>10.5mL).

- Don't delay processing of specimen.

- Obtain at least 2 samples. The first sample has diagnostic sensitivity of 54% but with repeated sampling, diagnostic sensitivity is increased to 91%.

Ideal procedure for diagnosis:

Lumbar puntures --> cranial MRI --> spinal MRI --> radioisotope CSF flow --> ventricular or lateral cervical spine CSF analysis (if previous step yields no definitive answer)


The median survival time of patients without treatment is four to six weeks. The best prognosis are seen from NM due to breast cancer with the median overall survival of no more than six months after diagnosis of NM. Death are generally due to progressive neurological dysfunction. Treatment is meant to stabilize neurological function and prolong survival. Neurological dysfunction usually cannot be fixed but progressive dysfunction can be halted and survival may be increased to four to six months.

Factors that lower survival:

Much of prognosis can be determined from the damage due to primary cancer. Negative hormone receptor status, poor performance status, more than 3 chemotherapy regimes, and high Cyfra 21-1 level at diagnosis, all indicates lower survival period of patients with NM. Cyfra 21-1 is a fragment of the cytokeratin 19 and may reflect the tumor burden within the CSF.


There is no standard treatment that has been established for NM thus treatments are almost always palliative.


This method is used mostly for focal type of NM due to the nature of damage and success rate associated with the treatment. Radiotherapy targets and tumor and destroys the collective tissues of cancerous cells.

Treatments | Chemotherapy

Systemic (intravenous or oral) chemotherapy and intrathecal chemotherapy: Intrathecal therapy is when injection is done directly to the spinal cord into the sub-arachnoid space to avoid the Blood-Brain-Barrier (BBB) and gain direct access to the CSF. Intrathecal Therapy is preferred since intravenous chemotherapy do not penetrate the BBB. The most common chemicals used are liposomal cytarabine (DepoCyte) and intrathecal methotrexate (MTX).

In combination, intrathecal chemotherapy most often comprises methotrexate, cytarabine, thiotepa and steroids. Ventriculoperitoneal shunts may also be applied with chemotherapy to avoid invasive surgery to gain access to the CSF.

An example of treatment:

Intrathecal MTX injection at a dose of 15 mg/day for 5 days every other week with hydrocortisone acetate injecting IT on day one to prevent arachnoiditis, the inflammation of the arachnoid. MTX administration is continued until neurological progression or relapse occurred. Systemic chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery are performed depending on the need of the patient.

Risks of treatments:

Both Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy are harmful to the body and most definitely the brain. Caution must be utilized in treating patients with NM. Another factor that makes treatment difficult is that there is no suitable method to evaluate the disease progression.