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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 240-244

Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy diagnosed by brain biopsy, not by the DNA test for JC Virus

1 Department of Neurosurgery, Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, Seoul, Republic of Korea
2 Department of Infectious Medicine, Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, Seoul, Republic of Korea
3 Department of Hospital Pathology, Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, Seoul, Republic of Korea
4 Department of Neurosurgery, Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, College of Medicine; Catholic Neuroscience Institute, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Date of Web Publication21-Feb-2019

Correspondence Address:
Byung-chul Son
Department of Neurosurgery, Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, Catholic Neuroscience Institute, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, 222 Banpo-Daero, Seocho-Gu, Seoul 06591
Republic of Korea
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ajns.AJNS_243_17

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Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) is a demyelinating disease of the central nervous system caused by a lytic infection of oligodendrocytes due to the presence of JC polyomavirus (JCV). The disease occurs mostly in immunocompromised patients and is associated with a high mortality rate. The diagnosis of PML is based on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay for JC viral DNA in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). However, case reports of the diagnosis of PML established with brain biopsy despite negative JCV CSF PCR analysis when clinical and neuroimaging features are suggestive of PML have been published. A 44-year-old male with a 6-year history of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome developed mental confusion and memory impairment despite 3 months of highly active antiretroviral therapy. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed multiple subcortical white matter lesions in bilateral hemispheres and subcortical nuclei including the thalamus and basal ganglia. JCV DNA was not detected in CSF study, but a brain biopsy showed a high JCV DNA titer. The diagnosis of PML was established with brain biopsy. An early brain biopsy may be important in the diagnosis of PML in patients with clinical manifestations and neuroimaging findings if JCV DNA is undetectable in the CSF PCR.

Keywords: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, brain biopsy, demyelination, DNA test, human immunodeficiency virus, JC virus, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy

How to cite this article:
Lee Sy, Ko Hc, Kim Si, Lee YS, Son Bc. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy diagnosed by brain biopsy, not by the DNA test for JC Virus. Asian J Neurosurg 2019;14:240-4

How to cite this URL:
Lee Sy, Ko Hc, Kim Si, Lee YS, Son Bc. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy diagnosed by brain biopsy, not by the DNA test for JC Virus. Asian J Neurosurg [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 24];14:240-4. Available from:

  Introduction Top

Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) is an infectious demyelinating disease of the brain, caused by the human JC polyomavirus (JCV).[1] The JCV is a small ubiquitous DNA polyomavirus with a 5.13 Kb circular enclosed double-stranded DNA. It is a neurotropic virus that infects only humans.[1] JCV was first isolated in 1971 from the brain of a patient with Hodgkin's disease who died of PML and was named based on the patient's initials.[1],[2] In the first two decades after its initial description, PML remained a rather rare disease, occurring mainly in patients with hematopathies, solid organ malignancies, and inflammatory disorders, as well as in organ transplant recipients. This changed drastically in the 1980s, in the advent of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. PML was soon recognized as a major opportunistic infection of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), occurring in up to 5% of patients, and did not decrease significantly despite advances in antiretroviral treatment.[1] Interests in PML increased further by withdrawal of natalizumab (Tysabri ®) from the marketplace. The drug, which was promising in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) and Crohn's disease, was withdrawn after the report of two cases of PML in MS patients and a patient with Crohn's disease.[1] Several classes of immunomodulatory medications for autoimmune diseases have been reportedly associated with PML, including natalizumab for MS and Crohn's disease,[3] rituximab for lupus,[4] and efalizumab for psoriasis.[5]

The diagnosis of PML is suggested by clinical and neuroimaging features and is further established by demonstrating the presence of JCV DNA in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) using polymerase chain reaction (PCR).[6],[7] Although CSF PCR for JCV is highly specific (92%–99%) and sensitive (74%–93%), false negatives do occur.[8],[9],[10],[11] If ascertaining the diagnosis of PML remains elusive, a brain biopsy should be undertaken.[10] This remains the gold standard for the diagnosis of PML, specifically when clinical and neuroradiological features are suggestive of PML despite negative JCV CSF PCR analysis.[10],[11] We describe a case of PML with false-negative CSF JCV PCR, which reinforces the importance of obtaining histologic confirmation when clinicoradiological findings are suggestive of PML, even with initially normal CSF studies.

  Case Report Top

A 44-year-old male patient presented with dysphasia, confusion, and memory impairment that developed following a generalized seizure. He had been living in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the last 6 years. He was diagnosed as AIDS during a routine health examination in 2011. However, he willingly did not seek any medical treatment. Two months prior to presentation, an unremitting diarrhea developed and he returned to his hometown for medical evaluation. A diagnosis of cytomegalovirus (CMV) colitis was made through colonoscopic biopsy. The titer of reverse transcriptase-PCR (RT-PCR) against HIV at the time of admission was 126,629 copies/ml and absolute count of CD4 was 10/UL. Ganciclovir (antiviral agent for CMV) and highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART, comprising lopinavir, ritonavir, tenofovir, and emtricitabine) were started. After recovery from CMV colitis, his condition was stable. Despite the improvement of his diarrhea, a generalized seizure followed by dysphasia and memory impairment developed 2 months later. He denied any homosexual behavior and his medical history was unremarkable, including transfusion or drug addiction.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain revealed multiple confluent subcortical lesions with high signal intensity on T2-weighted image, involving bilateral frontal, right temporal and parietal lobes, and left thalamic and subcapsular regions [Figure 1]a and [Figure 1]b. Irregular marginal enhancement on gadolinium was evident [Figure 1]c. Laboratory findings were as follows: hemoglobin of 15.1 g/dL, white blood cell (WBC) count of 4.62 × 109/L, platelet count of 293 × 109/L, erythrocyte sedimentation ratio of 27 mm/h, and C-reactive protein level of 0.17 mg/dL. CSF examination showed WBC count of 2 cells/UL, red blood cell count of 1 cell/UL, protein level of 33.5 mg/dL, glucose of 51 mg/dL, and chloride of 124 mEq/L. HIV titer was 80,148 copies/mL and CD4 count was 35/UL. The results of the CSF PCR examination for toxoplasmosis, tuberculosis, and polyoma viruses including BK and JCV were negative.
Figure 1: Magnetic resonance imaging and intraoperative findings in progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. (a) A T2-weighted axial image showing multiple convoluted irregular cortical and subcortical lesions in bilateral frontal and parietal lobes. (b) A T2-weighted axial image showing small irregular high signal in the left thalamus. (c) An enhanced T1-weighted axial image showing irregular marginal subcortical enhancement in multiple frontal lesions. (d) An intraoperative photograph taken after removal of a portion of middle frontal gyrus for brain biopsy. The subcortical white matter and surrounding gyri seem normal in gross inspection

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To confirm the pathology of the brain lesion, a brain biopsy was requested. Under three-dimensional MRI guidance, small craniotomy of the left frontal was performed. Portions of the middle frontal gyrus and subcortical white matter showing enhancement on MRI were taken for pathologic examination [Figure 1]d. The histologic examination revealed multifocal demyelinated areas with reactive astrocytosis and perivascular lymphocytic cuffing. Several large infected oligodendrocytes with inclusion-bearing dark nuclei or clear nucleoplasm having marginated chromatin were present in the periphery of demyelinated area [Figure 2]a. The demyelinated areas revealed small round lesions with myelin breakdown in the luxol-fast blue staining for myelin [Figure 2]b. Numerous macrophages had infiltrated and phagocytosis containing fragmented myelin was apparent. The hyperchromatic, inclusion-bearing oligodendrocytes displayed high ki-67 proliferative index [Figure 2]c and intense p53 nuclear immunostaining. Electron microscopy revealed infected oligodendrocytes filled by viral particles evident as spheres measuring up to 40 nm in diameter [Figure 2]d. JCV DNA was detected in brain tissue by PCR. Therefore, the final diagnosis of PML was confirmed and HAART was continued. His neurologic status was stable despite continued memory impairment. A generalized seizure developed 3 weeks after brain biopsy and his mentality became stuporous. Epileptiform discharges over the left frontocentral lobes were found on electroencephalography, and anticonvulsants (levetiracetam 2000 mg/day and valproate 900 mg/day) were added. Despite anticonvulsants and HAART, his mentality did not improve. Recurrent seizures developed and additional anticonvulsants were prescribed (levetiracetam 2000 mg/day, valproate 1200 mg/day, topiramate 600 mg/day, and clobazam 20 mg/day). The patient died 3 months from the onset of neurological symptoms.
Figure 2: Histopathologic examination of progressive multifocal leukoenecephalopathy. (a) Several large infected oligodendrocytes (arrows) with inclusion-bearing dark nuclei or clear nucleoplasm having marginated chromatin (H and E, ×400). b) Small round demyelinated lesions with myelin breakdown (luxol-fast blue, ×100). (c) High Ki-67 proliferative oligodendrocytes (immunohistochemistry, ×200). (d) Viral particles measuring up to 40 nm spheres (EM, ×80,000)

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  Discussion Top

Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy

PML is a demyelinating disease of the central nervous system (CNS) caused by a lytic infection of oligodendrocytes due to the presence of the JCV.[12] JCV is a ubiquitous polyomavirus that infects 50% or more of the adult population globally.[6] PML remains an extraordinarily rare complication of this infection in otherwise normal persons and occurs almost exclusively in immunocompromised conditions, such as HIV infection, lymphoid malignancies, and after organ and stem cell transplantations.[11],[12] While PML achieved prominence during the first two decades of the HIV endemic, effective antiretroviral treatment and restitution of T-cell function have led to PML being less prominent in this population.[13] HIV infection as a predisposing factor has now been supplanted by T-cell immunodeficiency induced by a range of immune-mediated therapies, including monoclonal antibodies, such as natalizumab, rituximab, infliximab, and efalizumab, as a major cause of PML.[13]

The onset of PML is insidious, with subtle changes in cognition and loss of memory in association with a range of progressive neurological deficits.[6],[13] These are varied and include cognitive deficits, sensory deficits, hemianopsia, aphasia, and difficulties in coordination and gait, consistent with a multifocal cerebral pathology. A high index of suspicion is required for early diagnosis, as these clinical features are not sufficiently distinctive to enable a definitive clinical diagnosis.[13] Brain imaging reveals characteristic multiple lesions in the subcortical hemispheric white matter or the cerebellar peduncles. Contrary to the implication in the title to this article that only cerebral white matter is involved, PML lesions also occur in gray matter areas such as the basal ganglia or thalamus.[13]

No single criterion establishes the diagnosis of PML. Rather, it requires clinical, imaging, and virologic evidences.[6] Many authorities considered the demonstration of JCV DNA coupled with appropriate clinical and imaging features to be diagnostic of PML, obviating the need for a brain biopsy.[6],[14] However, either the clinical or imaging features are unconvincing or CSF PCR is negative or has not been performed.[6] In the context of diagnostic uncertainty, the diagnostic criteria of PML were suggested by the American Association of Neurology in 2013. Definitive diagnosis of PML requires neuropathologic demonstration of the typical pathologic triad (demyelination, bizarre astrocytes, and enlarged oligodendroglial nuclei) coupled with the techniques to show the presence of JCV.[6] The presence of clinical and imaging manifestations consistent with the demonstration of JCV by PCR in CSF is also considered diagnostic.[6]

The diagnosis of PML is based on the PCR demonstration of JCV in CNS tissue and/or CSF.[1] Although sampling of the CSF is usually recommended, false-negative PCR-based analysis of JCV in CSF, as shown in our case, has been reported several times [Table 1].[8],[9],[10],[11] In a series of laboratory-confirmed PML patients,[15] the sensitivity of DNA PCR examination was approximately 80% and these false-negative findings may have been due to low titers of JCV DNA in CSF or technical instability at commercial laboratories.[15],[16] Therefore, two approaches to establishing the diagnosis of PML were suggested: securing the diagnosis with tissue or, as is more commonly practiced, establishing the diagnosis with clinical or radiographic criteria coupled with demonstrating the presence of the virus in the CSF compartment.[6]
Table 1: Summary of reports regarding progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy diagnosed by brain biopsy followed by false-negative polymerase chain reaction assay in cerebrospinal fluid

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  Conclusions Top

Although PML has been regarded as an incurable disease and to be associated with doomed prognosis, potentially useful medications have been proposed for PML recently.[11] Therefore, the early diagnosis of this disease is essential. In case of negative PCR in CSF study, brain biopsy would be a useful means of establishing the diagnosis of PML.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Tan CS, Koralnik IJ. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy and other disorders caused by JC virus: Clinical features and pathogenesis. Lancet Neurol 2010;9:425-37.  Back to cited text no. 1
Padgett BL, Walker DL, ZuRhein GM, Eckroade RJ, Dessel BH. Cultivation of papova-like virus from human brain with progressive multifocal leucoencephalopathy. Lancet 1971;1:1257-60.  Back to cited text no. 2
Van Assche G, Van Ranst M, Sciot R, Dubois B, Vermeire S, Noman M, et al. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy after natalizumab therapy for Crohn's disease. N Engl J Med 2005;353:362-8.  Back to cited text no. 3
Carson KR, Evens AM, Richey EA, Habermann TM, Focosi D, Seymour JF, et al. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy after rituximab therapy in HIV-negative patients: A report of 57 cases from the research on adverse drug events and reports project. Blood 2009;113:4834-40.  Back to cited text no. 4
Korman BD, Tyler KL, Korman NJ. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, efalizumab, and immunosuppression: A cautionary tale for dermatologists. Arch Dermatol 2009;145:937-42.  Back to cited text no. 5
Berger JR, Aksamit AJ, Clifford DB, Davis L, Koralnik IJ, Sejvar JJ, et al. PML diagnostic criteria: Consensus statement from the AAN neuroinfectious disease section. Neurology 2013;80:1430-8.  Back to cited text no. 6
Amend KL, Turnbull B, Foskett N, Napalkov P, Kurth T, Seeger J, et al. Incidence of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy in patients without HIV. Neurology 2010;75:1326-32.  Back to cited text no. 7
Kuhle J, Gosert R, Bühler R, Derfuss T, Sutter R, Yaldizli O, et al. Management and outcome of CSF-JC virus PCR-negative PML in a natalizumab-treated patient with MS. Neurology 2011;77:2010-6.  Back to cited text no. 8
Landry ML, Eid T, Bannykh S, Major E. False negative PCR despite high levels of JC virus DNA in spinal fluid: Implications for diagnostic testing. J Clin Virol 2008;43:247-9.  Back to cited text no. 9
Babi MA, Pendlebury W, Braff S, Waheed W. JC virus PCR detection is not infallible: A fulminant case of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy with false-negative cerebrospinal fluid studies despite progressive clinical course and radiological findings. Case Rep Neurol Med 2015;2015:643216.  Back to cited text no. 10
Ikeda J, Matsushima A, Ishii W, Goto T, Takahashi K, Nakamichi K, et al. Brain biopsy is more reliable than the DNA test for JC virus in cerebrospinal fluid for the diagnosis of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Intern Med 2017;56:1231-4.  Back to cited text no. 11
Weissert R. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. J Neuroimmunol 2011;231:73-7.  Back to cited text no. 12
Misbah SA. Progressive multi-focal leucoencephalopathy-driven from rarity to clinical mainstream by iatrogenic immunodeficiency. Clin Exp Immunol 2017;188:342-52.  Back to cited text no. 13
Cinque P, Koralnik IJ, Clifford DB. The evolving face of human immunodeficiency virus-related progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy: Defining a consensus terminology. J Neurovirol 2003;9 Suppl 1:88-92.  Back to cited text no. 14
Mizusawa H, Kishida S, Saijo M, Yukishita M, Shishido-Hara Y, Sawa H, et al. Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). Clin Neurol 2011;51:1051-7.  Back to cited text no. 15
Marshall LJ, Major EO. Molecular regulation of JC virus tropism: Insights into potential therapeutic targets for progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol 2010;5:404-17.  Back to cited text no. 16


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

  [Table 1]


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