This study defines the risk of central nervous system (CNS) relapse in patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation (BMT) for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in remission, with no posttransplant prophylactic CNS therapy. Ninety-two consecutive patients in complete remission received BMT for ALL (n=82) or high-grade non-Hodgkin's lymphoma with poor prognostic factors at diagnosis (n=10). Sixtysix patients received allogeneic BMT (Allo-BMT) and 26 patients, without an identical sibling, underwent autologous BMT (Auto-BMT). Fifteen patients had CNS involvement at diagnosis and underwent BMT in first remission. Eight patients experienced CNS relapse after BMT, corresponding to a probability of 11% at 3 years. Apart from a history of prior CNS involvement, no patient characteristic evaluated statistically influenced CNS relapse after BMT. The probability of CNS relapse was 5.5% for the 70 patients without history of CNS involvement and 27.5% for the 22 patients with prior CNS involvement. However, subgroup analysis showed that the increased risk of CNS relapse is mainly observed in Auto-BMT patients with history of prior CNS involvement, particularly in patients undergoing BMT in first remission (three of five Auto-BMT versus one of ten Allo-BMT). Taking into account the multiple factors which influence the occurrence and the treatment of CNS leukemia, the results on this retrospective study suggests that (1) for patients without CNS involvement at diagnosis and for whom BMT is performed in first remission, cranial irradiation before BMT and posttransplant prophylactic CNS therapy can be omitted because of the low probability of CNS relapse after BMT (3,4%), when total-body irradiation (TBI) is included in the conditioning regimen; and (2) the difference observed between Allo-BMT and Auto-BMT patients with previous CNS involvement and undergoing BMT in first remission could indicate that graft-versus-host leukemia acts even in the CNS in Allo-BMT patients.