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CSF Analysis: Exams

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Also known as: Spinal Fluid Analysis
Formal name: Cerebrospinal Fluid Analysis

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Microscopic Examination

Normal CSF has no or very few cells present and appears clear. If the CSF sample appears clear, a small drop of undiluted CSF is examined under a microscope, and cells are counted manually. If the number of cells present are very few (for example, 5 or less), the laboratory may or may not perform a cell differential (see below). If cells are numerous (such as greater than 5), a differential will most likely be done. To perform a differential, labs will often use a special centrifuge (cytocentrifuge) to concentrate the cells at the bottom of a test tube. A sample of the concentrated cells is placed on a slide, treated with special stain, and an evaluation of the different kinds of WBCs present is performed.

If cancer is suspected or has been previously diagnosed, the sample is usually cytocentrifuged regardless of the number of cells counted, and a differential is performed.

  • CSF total cell counts
    • Red blood cell (RBC) count. Normally no red blood cells are present in the CSF. The presence of red blood cells may indicate bleeding into the CSF or may indicate a "traumatic tap" - blood that leaked into the CSF sample during collection.
    • White blood cell (WBC) count. Normally less than 5 cells are present in the adult. A significant increase in white blood cells in the CSF is seen with infection or inflammation of the central nervous system.
  • CSF WBC differential 
    Small numbers of lymphocytesmonocytes (and, in neonates, neutrophils) are normal in a sample of CSF. There may be:
    • an increase in neutrophils with a bacterial infection
    • an increase in lymphocytes with a viral or fungal infection
    • sometimes an increase in eosinophils with a parasitic infection
    • abnormal and increased numbers of WBCs may be seen with leukemia that is present in the central nervous system
    • abnormal cells may be present with cancerous tumors
    • immune disorders of the CSF, such as multiple sclerosis, may also cause a slight increase in lymphocytes.

There may be an increase in the different types of WBCs with a variety of other conditions, including brain abscess, following seizures or bleeding within the brain or skull, metastatic tumor, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and inflammatory disorders such as sarcoidosis.

  • CSF cytology – a cytocentrifuged sample is treated with a special stain and examined under a microscope for abnormal cells. This is often done when a central nervous system tumor or metastatic cancer is suspected. The presence of certain abnormal cells, such as tumor cells or immature blood cells, can indicate what type of cancer is involved.


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