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Ultrastruct Pathol. 1997 Jan-Feb;21(1):1-31.

Ultrastructural pathology of glial brain tumors revisited: a review.

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Department of Oncology, Medical Academy Lodz, Poland.


The ultrastructural pathology of primary brain tumors of glial origin is examined. These are divided into two major groups. The first category comprises astrocytoma with the variants: fibrillary, protoplasmic, gemistocytic, and anaplastic. These are biologically aggressive tumors of a relatively high proliferative potential and include a substantial proportion of cases that transform into the most malignant secondary glioblastoma. The second category, comprised of rather benign tumors of a limited proliferative capacity and a reasonable good prognosis, includes such clinico-pathological entities as pilocytic astrocytoma, pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma, and subependymal giant cell astrocytoma of tuberous sclerosis. There is no ultrastructural feature, however, which makes it possible to discriminate between major subclasses of astrocytes; but secondary glioblastoma cells, while still retaining the stigmata of neoplastic astrocytes, are characterized by nuclei that seem to be more indented, cisterns of the endoplastic reticulum may be distended, and intranuclear pseudoinclusions are frequently observed. Primary glioblastoma, which probably originates de novo, is characterized by poorly differentiated cells with a paucity of subcellular organelles and no obvious features of astrocytic origin. Granular cell tumor also belongs to neoplasms of astrocytic lineage and the hallmark of this entity is a cell characterized by the presence of numerous membrane-bound, electron-dense autophagic vacuoles. Its malignant analogue is the granular cell glioblastoma. Two subtypes of granular cell glioblastoma have been distinguished. The first is characterized by the presence of numerous granular, electron-dense bodies which correspond to autophagic vacuoles. The second type is characterized by numerous electron-dense, amorphous masses within cellular processes. These electron-dense inclusions are virtually indistinguishable from minute Rosenthal fibers. The pilocytic astrocytoma is virtually indistinguishable at the ultrastructural level from fibrillary astrocytomas but cells tend to be more elongated. Besides Rosenthal fibers, two types of distinctive structures are relatively common in pilocytic astrocytomas: eosinophilic hyaline droplets and round granular bodies, which are composed of large aggregates of electron-dense secondary lysosomes or small electron-dense bodies, respectively. Pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma is characterized by astrocytes surrounded by basal membranes. It belongs to a peculiar category of astrocytic "desmoplastic" brain tumors occurring in younger patients, the common denominator for which is the presence of basal lamina. The last category in this group is subependymal giant cell astrocytoma, a tumor of bivalent (glial and neuronal) differentiation, the cells of which are characterized by the presence of peculiar crystalloids. The hallmark of oligodendroglioma is the presence of concentric arrays of membranes (so-called membrane laminations, whorls, or scrolls). A fragment of the cytoplasm sequestrated within a particular whorl may contain mitochondria, lysosomes, or abundant glycogen granules. Ependymomas are characterized by a florid picture dominated by the presence of microlumina, cilia with basal bodies (blepharoplasts), microvilli, and long, interdigitating intercellular junctions of the zonulae adherentiae type. Ganglioglioma, the last category covered by this review, is a mixed glio-neuronal tumor. While glial cells are indistinguishable from their counterparts encountered elsewhere (mostly pilocytic astrocytes), the ganglion cells are characterized by abundant intracytoplasmic dense-core vesicles, absence of intermediate filaments, and numerous microtubules. Occasionally a close apposition of ganglion cells and Rosenthal fibers is seen. Dense-core vesicles are pleomorphic and ranged in a diameter from small synaptic vesicles to large lysosome-like neurosecretory granules.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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