Clinical History: A 47 year-old man presents with chronic right hip and leg pain. Reflexes are normal. No weakness is found on physical exam. The patient denies bowel or bladder dysfunction. (1a) T2-weighted sagittal and (1b) axial images of the lumbar region are provided. What are the findings? What is your diagnosis?
Ventriculus Terminalis (terminal ventricle of the cord).
The Ventriculus Terminalis (terminal ventricle) is a developmental variant of the distal cord characterized by an ependymal lined cavity at or near the conus medullaris. Normally the central canal is widest at the conus medullaris, but if prominent or enlarged, it must be differentiated from a cystic neoplasm or syringohydromyelia.
Kernohan in 1924 provided post-mortem light microscopic details of this finding in the developing cord of fetuses, children and adults.1 The terminal ventricle is observable in all fetuses and children much more than in adults, but increases in frequency again in the elderly. In 1995, Coleman reported that MRI revealed a terminal ventricle in 11 of 418 (2.6%) children less than 5 years old.2 Kriss found 5 cases in neonates, all of whom underwent ultrasonography for cutaneous stigmata over two years at a large children’s hospital, and felt it was a normal variant.3
The spinal cord develops in two stages. It begins with neurulation manifested as closure of the neural tube, which forms the majority of the cord and is complete by about 27 days of gestation. At about 4.5 weeks, caudally near the tail fold (perhaps as low as S2), neural epithelium and notochord fuse to create a caudal cell mass composed of undifferentiated cells. This cell mass then undergoes vacuolization. The resultant microcysts coalesce and canalize into an ependymal lined tube and unite with the rostral neural tube. Beginning at about 38 days of gestation, retrogressive differentiation occurs via apoptosis (programmed cell death), completing the formation of the conus medullaris, filum terminale and terminal ventricle. Through this process, a major portion of the distal cord involutes. The process is not uniform and microscopic accessory canals and lumina are commonly found in embryos in the conus region, which can lead to a terminal ventricle that is eccentrically located within the central canal.4
Additional MR Examples
The terminal ventricle is usually an incidental finding of little clinical significance. On rare occasions, however, cystic dilatation of the terminal ventricle can occur, resulting in clinical symptoms. Less than 30 such cases have been reported in the literature.5-8 The reason for this enlargement is not known. Trauma and ischemia have been suggested, altering CSF flow within the central canal or leading to disturbance of the Reissner Fiber (a subependymal secretory product) which has a role in CSF regulation.6
Coleman indicated that the average size of the terminal ventricle was 22 x 4.1 x 4.2 mm.2 Reported cases of cystic dilatation of the terminal ventricle have been considerably larger. Signs and symptoms in those affected vary substantially, prompting De Moura Batista to propose classifying the patients into different groups depending on clinical presentation. Those patients’s with bowel or bladder dysfunction, lower extremity weakness or disturbance of reflexes should be more strongly considered for surgical intervention, which might include cyst fenestration or cyst shunting.7 Brisman reported a case of a 57 year-old woman who presented with acute cauda equina syndrome which substantially responded to emergency surgical decompression and cyst drainage.5
Knowing that a small cystic area representing the terminal ventricle can occur as a normal variation can be comforting if the patient has incidental symptoms. However, care must be taken to follow the patient clinically or by imaging at periodic intervals. Only about 2.5% of syrinxes are restricted to the distal cord.2 Therefore, if a small cystic lesion of the conus medullaris is observed it is unknown if it represents a very small localized syrinx or if it is a terminal ventricle that may enlarge over time. Differential diagnoses include cystic neoplasm, syringohydromyelia, cord infarct and artifact, the latter possibly due to pulsation from cord motion or truncation at dark/bright signal interfaces.
MRI in the Differential Diagnosis
The ventriculus terminalis, or terminal ventricle, is an ependymal lined space within the conus that usually does not persist into adulthood. When present in adults, the terminal ventricle is usually an incidental finding unrelated to current symptoms. Rarely, the terminal ventricle may dilate and cause significant clinical symptoms. MR is useful in the detection and diagnosis of the terminal ventricle, and can be used to differentiate this variant from other lesions of the cord or conus. In cases in which a lesion is indeterminate in appearance, a lack of contrast enhancement indicates a non-aggressive abnormality. Terminal ventricle may be indistinguishable from a distal syrinx, though either lesion can simply be followed based on clinical symptoms, in order to assess for possible expansion.
1 Kernohan JW. The Ventriculus Terminalis: Its Growth and Development. J Comp Neurol 1924; 38:107-125
2 Coleman LT, et al. Ventriculus Terminalis of the Conus medullaris: MR Findings in Children. AJNR 1995; 16:1421-1426
3 Kriss VM, et al. The Ventriculus Terminalis of the Spinal Cord in the Neonate: A Normal Variant on Sonography. AJR 1995; 165: 1491-1493
4 Barkovich AJ. Congenital Anomalies of the Spine. In: Pediatric Neuroimaging, 4th ed. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2005
5 Brisman JL, et al. Cystic Dilation of the Conus Ventriculus Terminalis Presenting as an Acute Cauda Equina Syndrome Relieved by Decompression and Cyst Drainage. Neurosurgery 2006; 58:585-586
6 Ciappetta P, et al. Cystic Dilation of the Ventriculus Terminalis in Adults. J Neurosurg Spine 2008; 8: 92-99.
7 De Moura Batista L, et al. Cystic Lesion of the Ventriculus Terminalis: Proposal for a New Clinical Classification. J Neurosurg Spine 2008; 8: 163-168
8 Dullerud R, et al. MR Imaging of Two Operated Patients and Review of the Literature. Acta Radiologica 2003; 44:444-446