Pilocytic astrocytoma

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Pilocytic astrocytoma
Classification and external resources
Pilocytic astrocytoma - smear - very high mag.jpg
Micrograph of a pilocytic astrocytoma, showing characteristic bipolar cells with long pilocytic (hair-like) processes. Smear preparation. H&E stain.
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Pilocytic astrocytoma
Classification and external resources
Pilocytic astrocytoma - smear - very high mag.jpg
Micrograph of a pilocytic astrocytoma, showing characteristic bipolar cells with long pilocytic (hair-like) processes. Smear preparation. H&E stain.

Pilocytic astrocytoma or juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma or cystic cerebellar astrocytoma (and its variant juvenile pilomyxoid astrocytoma) is a neoplasm of the brain that occurs more often in children and young adults (in the first 20 years of life). They usually arise in the cerebellum, near the brainstem, hypothalamic region, or the optic chiasm, but they may occur in any area where astrocytes are present, including the cerebral hemispheres and the spinal cord. These tumors are usually slow growing. The neoplasms are associated with the formation of a single (or multiple) cyst(s), and can become very large.

The pilocytic astrocytoma is, in general, considered a benign tumor. It is often cystic, and, if solid, it tends to be well-circumscribed. It is characteristically a contrast-enhancing tumor by current imaging investigations (e.g., CT scan, MRI)

Juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma is associated with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), and optic gliomas are among the most frequently encountered tumors in patients with this disorder.

It is classified as Grade 1 Astrocytoma.[1]


Children affected by pilocytic astrocytoma can present with different symptoms that might include failure to thrive (lack of appropriate weight gain), headache, nausea, vomiting, irritability, torticollis (tilt neck or wry neck) difficulty to coordinate movements and visual complaints (including nystagmus). The complaints may vary depending on the location and size of the neoplasm. The most common symptoms are associated with increased intracranial pressure due to the size of the neoplasm.


According to a Dutch source juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma occurs at a rate of 2 in 100,000 people. Most affected are children ages 5–14 years.[2]

Tumors of the optic pathway account for 3.6-6% of pediatric brain tumors, 60% of which are juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas. Astrocytomas account for 50% of pediatric primary central nervous system tumors. About 80-85% of cerebellar astrocytomas are juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas. Quoted from emedicine [3]

Recent genetic studies of pilocytic astrocytomas show that some sporadic cases have gain in chromosome 7q34 involving the BRAF locus (Bar et al., 2008).


Stereotactic MRI brain showed recurrent postoperative brain stem cystic pilocytic astrocytoma.
Pilocytic astrocytoma in the hypothalamic region.
Axial non contrast CT in a nine year old girl showing a slightly hypodense mass in the tectum of the brainstem, compressing the aqueduct of Sylvius and causing obstructive hydrocephalus
Sagittal T1-weighted MRI showing a well circumscribed hypointense mass in the tectum presumably a tectal plate glioma. These lesions are a distinct subset of pilocytic astrocytomas which present with hydrocephalus in 6 to 10 year olds and are rarely progressive lesions, when imaging is characteristic, biopsy is usually not performed because of the risks to adjacent structures, often shunting is the only treatment required.
T2-weighted coronal MRI in the same patient showing the hyper- intense lesion to originate just to the right of midline with deviation and compression and obstruction of the aqueduct with resultant dilation of the lateral ventricles
Axial FLAIR MRI in the same patient showing the lesion to be hyperintense, note the suppression of the CSF in the ventricular system and subarachnoid space by the FLAIR technique
T1-weighted coronal MRI image post contrast showing heterogeneous contrast enhancement within the presumed tectal plate glioma

Usually—depending on the interview of the patient and after a clinical exam which includes a neurological exam, and an ophthalmological exam—a CT scan and or MRI scan will be performed. A special dye may be injected into a vein before these scans to provide contrast and make tumors easier to identify. The neoplasm will be clearly visible.

If a tumor is found, it will be necessary for a neurosurgeon to perform a biopsy of it. This simply involves the removal of a small amount of tumorous tissue, which is then sent to a (neuro)pathologist for examination and staging.[4] The biopsy may take place before surgical removal of the tumor or the sample may be taken during surgery.

Visual aspect[edit]

Macroscopically, an astrocytoma is a mass that looks well-circumscribed and has a large cyst. The neoplasm may also be solid.

Under the microscope, the tumor is seen to be composed of bipolar cells with long "hairlike" GFAP-positive processes, giving the designation "pilocytic" (that is, made up of cells that look like fibers when viewed under a microscope[5]). Some pilocytic astrocytomas may be more fibrillary and dense in composition. There is often presence of Rosenthal fibers,[6] eosinophilic granular bodies and microcysts. Myxoid foci and oligodendroglioma-like cells may also be present, though non-specific. Long-standing lesions may show hemosiderin-laden macrophages and calcifications.


Surgery is often the treatment of choice. Total resection is often possible; however, the location could prohibit access to the neoplasm and lead to incomplete or no resection at all. Removal of the tumor will generally allow functional survival for many years. . In particular for pilocytic astrocytomas (that are commonly indolent bodies that may permit normal neurologic function) surgeons may decide to monitor the neoplasm's evolution and postpone surgical intervention for some time. However, left unattended these tumors may eventually undergo neoplastic transformation.

Some articles mention ultrasonic aspiration as a minimal invasive technique for solid neoplasms.[citation needed]

Because of the age of people diagnosed with pilocytic astrocytoma, the treating medical team will often try to avoid radiotherapy and chemotherapy in order avoid damage to the developing brain. There is evidence in literature to suggest that the careful use of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be useful as a complementary treatment in case of incompletely resection of the neoplasm.

Side effects[edit]

Children with cerebellar pilocytic astrocytoma may experience side effects related to the tumor itself and related to the treatment. Strabismus.

Side effects of treatment[edit]

Epileptic seizures[edit]

Any person undergoing brain surgery may suffer from epileptic seizures.

Parents of children after surgery should be made aware of this fact and should be prepared to take adequate action in case of the seizure (see brain tumor)


Common side effects of chemotherapy includes nausea, vomiting and decreased blood counts (i.e. anemia).

Radiation therapy[edit]

Juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas that are initially characterized according to WHO grade I have been found to undergo malignant transformation following radiation treatment.[7]

Radiation therapy may cause swelling related to tissue inflammation.

Expected outcome after treatment[edit]

The recommended course of action according to different literature sources is to monitor and reattempt a complete surgical removal. In cases of progressive/recurrent disease or when maximal surgical removal has been achieved, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy will be considered by the medical team.


  1. ^ Huang H, Hara A, Homma T, Yonekawa Y, Ohgaki H (October 2005). "Altered expression of immune defense genes in pilocytic astrocytomas". J. Neuropathol. Exp. Neurol. 64 (10): 891–901. doi:10.1097/01.jnen.0000183345.19447.8e. PMID 16215461. 
  2. ^ http://www.hersentumor.nl
  3. ^ Lo, Simon MBBS et al.., Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma, http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/341293-overview
  4. ^ http://www.cap.org/apps/docs/reference/myBiopsy/pilocytic_astrocytoma.html
  5. ^ National Cancer Institute > Dictionary of Cancer Terms > pilocytic Retrieved on July 16, 2010
  6. ^ Wippold FJ, Perry A, Lennerz J (May 2006). "Neuropathology for the neuroradiologist: Rosenthal fibers". AJNR Am J Neuroradiol 27 (5): 958–61. PMID 16687524. 
  7. ^ bmj.com

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