Case 5 -
Primary CNS Melanoma
Mark L. Cohen
Case Western Reserve University
Click on each slide thumbnail image for an enlarged view
This 25-year-old male presented to his physician with a chief complaint of headaches and double
vision. He had a two-month history of occipital headaches of progressive severity and frequency. These
headaches began soon after a minor automobile accident and eventually became generalized. The patient
also complained of double vision on right gaze with left eyelid twitching. The patient had a long
history of left eye "swinging in and out" for which he wore corrective lenses since age 2. Family
history was notable for "multiple moles and skin lesions" in first-degree relatives. Physical exam
revealed bilateral papilledema, multiple moles and skin lesions, and bilateral sixth nerve palsies. A CT
scan of the head was performed and demonstrated a left frontal lobe mass. Removal of the lesion
accompanied by "left frontal lobectomy" was performed.
Case 5 - Figure 1 - LLP. Low power view demonstrating relationship of the tumor to the adjacent brain parenchyma.
Case 5 - Figure 2 - HP. The tumor is composed of epithelioid cells, many with prominent nucleoli and/or nuclear pseudoinclusions.
Diagnosis: Primary CNS melanoma
On the basis of a negative PTAH stain, this patient was originally given a diagnosis of "poorly
differentiated sarcoma", underwent a course of radiation therapy, and was lost to follow-up for
approximately three decades. PTAH histochemical staining was the method of choice for demonstrating
astrocytic differentiation prior to the development of GFAP antibodies in the 1970s, and hence was
state-of-the-art when this patient was operated on in 1968. The patient returned to visit his initial
surgeon's successor in the spring of 2000 complaining of problems related to his left visual field.
Neuroimaging studies and brain biopsy showed features consistent with radiation induced changes, but no
evidence of tumor recurrence.
Reevaluation of the initial resection specimen (this time with GFAP antibodies) confirmed the absence
of astrocytic differentiation. Both S100 protein and HMB-45 antibodies reacted with the tumor cells, and
focal pigment was identified, consistent with melanin (Berlin blue negative, Fontana-Masson positive).
The tumor is composed of sheets of predominantly amelanotic epithelioid cells and shows CNS invasion
along Virchow-Robin spaces. Many of the tumor cells contain intranuclear pseudoinclusions and/or
prominent nucleoli. Scattered mitotic figures (less than 1 per 10 high-power fields) are present, but
coagulative tumor necrosis is inconspicuous. These features are consistent with primary CNS melanoma.
Three years later (age 58, 33 years since diagnosis), he returned to the hospital with right
hemiparesis, speech problems, and progressive decline in mental status. CT scan showed a large
intracerebral hemorrhage with edema suspicious for tumor. The patient expired soon after. At autopsy,
cutaneous nevi were inconspicuous. Bilateral necrotizing bronchopneumonia was present. There was no
evidence of systemic melanoma. There was a well-healed surgical cavity in the left frontal lobe, without
evidence of tumor recurrence. Leptomeningeal melanosis was not identified. The left temporal lobe
contained a 6 X 6 X 6 cm. glioblastoma multiforme.
Even in the absence of melanin, the differential diagnosis of an epithelioid neoplasm with abundant
granular eosinophilic cytoplasm, intranuclear pseudoinclusions, and prominent nucleoli revolves around
malignant melanoma. Within the brain parenchyma, where this tumor appeared to have arisen, the
differential diagnosis is virtually confined to the two unlikely possibilities of epithelioid
glioblastoma multiforme (which would be GFAP positive)  and the pure rhabdoid form of atypical
teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (a highly aggressive tumor seen almost exclusively in the first years of
life) . Among meningeal tumors, several meningioma subtypes have been described that contain
epithelioid cells with abundant cytoplasm, including secretory, rhabdoid, and oncocytic variants
Indeed, at the time that this patient had his initial tumor resection, melanocytic meningeal tumors were
considered to be melanotic meningiomas. Recognition of these tumors as being derived from pial
melanocytes, rather than meningothelial cells, began with electron microscopic studies in the early
1970's, and continued with immunohistochemical and molecular studies over the past two decades.
These melanocytic neoplasms react with all the usual melanocyte markers (S100 protein, HMB-45, etc.) but
not with antibodies to EMA. Once the melanocytic nature of the tumor is established, the problem then
becomes one of trying to predict the biologic behavior of primary CNS melanocytic lesions, and on the
malignant end of this spectrum, distinguishing primary from metastatic malignant melanomas.
In the absence of three decades of follow-up followed by a post-mortem examination, it would be
impossible to definitively diagnose a melanotic tumor with the histopathologic features seen in this case
as primary to the nervous system in the absence of congenital cutaneous stigmata of neurocutaneous
melanosis. Though this patient has a personal and family history of "moles and skin lesions", these were
never evaluated further, either during life or at autopsy. Giant congenital nevi, seen in ~2/3 of
patients with neurocutaneous melanosis were not present, nor was there evidence of leptomeningeal
melanosis at autopsy. In addition to these pertinent negatives, the familial nature of the skin lesions
is NOT in keeping with the presence of neurocutaneous melanosis, which is classified as a congenital, but
non-hereditable, phakomatosis .
A recent study of 33 primary melanotic tumors of the central nervous system occurring in the absence
of evidence of neurocutaneous stigmata found that such tumors can usually be separated into benign
melanocytomas and malignant melanomas, and confirmed previous reports that primary CNS melanoma, in the
absence of diffuse leptomeningeal involvement, carries a much more favorable prognosis than metastatic
melanoma involving the nervous system . Thirteen of the 33 primary melanotic tumors were considered
malignant on the basis of histologic and cytologic features seen within this patient's tumor (epithelioid
cells growing in sheets, nuclear pleomorphism, prominent nucleoli, mitotic activity, CNS invasion, and
[not seen in this case] necrosis). These patients ranged from 15 to 71 years of age at diagnosis. Three
of these were supratentorial, with one occurring in the frontal lobe. The remaining 10 tumors were
equally divided between the posterior fossa and spinal cord. After resection, 8 of the 13 tumors
recurred, with four being fatal. However, only one of 5 totally resected melanomas recurred during
follow-up periods ranging from 14 months to three years. Furthermore, only one of these patients
received post-operative radiotherapy.
Seventeen of the tumors demonstrated pathologic features of well-differentiated leptomeningeal
melanocytomas (spindle shaped cells with monomorphic nuclei and indistinct nucleoli growing in nesting
patterns, with very little or no mitotic activity and no necrosis or CNS invasion). These occurred in
the same age range (17 to 73 years at diagnosis), with 2/3 involving the spinal leptomeninges. None
recurred following total or subtotal resection (with or without postoperative radiotherapy).
Three tumors could not be definitively classified as either benign melanocytomas or primary malignant
melanomas. These showed sheetlike growth, CNS invasion, and occasional mitoses, but had indistinct
nucleoli and no necrosis. It was recommended that these tumors be diagnosed as "Melanocytic neoplasm,
The first case of transition from an intracranial melanocytoma to primary malignant melanoma was
reported in September 2004 . This patient was 25 years old at the time that a "fibrous melanocytic
meningioma" (subsequently confirmed to be a meningeal melanocytoma) was removed from her petroclival
area. Regular MR examinations showed no evidence of tumor progression until 12 years later, when
brainstem compression was noted. Subtotal resection of the recurrent tumor demonstrated features
consistent with the aforementioned melanocytic tumor, intermediate grade (rare mitoses, no necrosis).
Clinical worsening with MR evidence of tumor progression led to a third operation seven months later,
which disclosed a pleomorphic epithelioid mitotically active tumor consistent with primary malignant
melanoma. Postoperatively, she developed diffuse leptomeningeal melanomatosis. Despite whole brain
radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she died 4 months later.
Leptomeningeal dissemination of primary CNS malignant melanoma is uncommon in adults (who usually do
not have neurocutaneous melanosis), but is common in children with neurocutaneous melanosis and CNS
lesions . These children may either present with a mass lesion followed by leptomeningeal
dissemination or with diffuse leptomeningeal melanocytic proliferation in the absence of a mass
lesion . The latter group present clinically with signs and symptoms of increased intracranial
pressure (headache, vomiting) accompanied by cranial nerve deficits. Pathologically, they may be divided
into cytologically bland (melanocytosis) and cytologically malignant (melanomatosis) proliferations,
though both groups appear to have an equally dismal prognosis (usually measured in months).
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