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Brain Tumor

Overview :

Each year, more than 17,000 brain tumors are diagnosed in the United States. About half of all primary brain tumors are benign, but in life-threatening locations. The rest are malignant and invasive.

Benign brain tumors

Benign brain tumors, composed of harmless cells, have clearly defined borders, can usually be completely removed, and are unlikely to recur. Benign brain tumors do not infiltrate nearby tissues but can cause severe pain, permanent brain damage, and death. Benign brain tumors sometimes become malignant.

Malignant brain tumors

Malignant brain tumors do not have distinct borders. They tend to grow rapidly, increasing pressure within the brain (IICP) and can spread in the brain or spinal cord beyond the point where they originate. It is highly unusual for malignant brain tumors to spread beyond the central nervous system (CNS).

Primary brain tumors

Primary brain tumors originate in the brain. They represent about 1% of all cancers and 2.5% of all cancer deaths.


Central nervous system (CNS)—The division of the nervous system that consists of the brain and spinal cord.

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)—Clear liquid that fills brain cavities and protects the brain and spinal cord.

Gamma knife—High-dose radiation treatment for intracranial tumors.

Intracranial—Located within or on the surface of the brain.

Metastatic or secondary brain tumors

Approximately 25% of all cancer patients develop secondary or metastatic brain tumors when cancer cells spread from another part of the body to the brain. Secondary brain tumors are most apt to occur in patients who have:

  • breast cancer.
  • colon cancer.
  • kidney cancer.
  • lung cancer.
  • melanoma (cancer) of the skin. These metastatic brain tumors can develop on any part of the brain or spinal cord.
  • cancer within the nasal passages and/or throat that follow the nerve pathways into the skull, and metastasize to the brain.

Who gets brain tumors

Brain tumors can develop at any age, but are most common in children between the ages of 3-12, and in adults aged 55-65. Primary brain cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death between birth and the age of 34, and the fourth most common cause of cancer death in men aged 35-54. Primary tumors of the brain and central nervous system are often associated with HIV infection. Men and caucasians have a higher risk of developing brain tumors. Other risk factors being studied include children with a history of previous radiation treatment to the head for cancer; parents with certain cancers (nervous system, salivary gland, colon); having an older father; having well-educated parents; occupational exposure to vinyl chloride, lead, and pesticides; history of epilepsy; history of certain genetic conditions (tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, von Hippel Lindau, familial polyposis, Osler-Weber-Rendu, Li-Fraumeni).

Naming and grading brain tumors

The name of a brain tumor describes where it originates, how it grows, and what kind of cells it contains. A tumor in an adult is also graded or staged according to:

  • how malignant it is
  • how rapidly it is growing and how likely it is to invade other tissues
  • how closely its cells resemble normal cells. (The more abnormal a tumor cell looks, the faster it is likely to grow)

Low-grade brain tumors usually have well-defined borders. Some low-grade brain tumors form or are enclosed (encapsulated) in cysts. Low-grade brain tumors grow slowly, if at all. They may spread throughout the brain, but rarely metastasize to other parts of the body.

Mid-grade and high-grade tumors grow more rapidly than low-grade tumors. Described as "truly malignant," these tumors usually infiltrate healthy tissue. The growth pattern makes it difficult to remove the entire tumor, and these tumors recur more often than low-grade tumors.

A single brain tumor can contain several different types of cells. The tumor's grade is determined by the highest-grade (most malignant) cell detected under a microscope, even if most of the cells in the tumor are less malignant. An infiltrating tumor is a tumor of any grade that grows into surrounding tissue.

Types of brain tumors

Glioma is the term used to refer to the most prevalent primary brain tumors. Gliomas arise from glial tissue, which supports and nourishes cells that send messages from the brain to other parts of the body. These tumors may be either malignant or benign. Astrocytomas, ependymomas, and mixed gliomas are three of the most common gliomas.

ASTROCYTOMAS. Named for the star-like shape of their cells, astrocytomas can develop on any part of the brain or spinal cord. Non-infiltrating astrocytomas grow slowly, and rarely spread to nearby tissue. Mild-to-moderately anaplastic astrocytomas with well-differentiated borders do not grow as slowly as non-infiltrating astrocytomas, and they do spread to surrounding tissues.

Anaplastic astrocytomas, which are also called Grade III astrocytomas, look more abnormal and grow more rapidly than non-infiltrating or mild-to-moderately anaplastic tumors.

Grade IV astrocytomas are also called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) tumors. Accounting for 30% of all primary brain tumors, GBMs are the most common brain tumors in middle-aged adults. GBMs are the most malignant of all brain tumors. Because they contain a greater mixture of cells than any other brain tumor, they are the most difficult to treat.

EPENDYMOMAS. Also called ependymal tumors, ependymomas account for 9% of all gliomas, and 5% of all intracranial tumors. These tumors, which are most common in children and adolescents, begin in the very thin membranes that help form cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and line the brain cavities (ventricles) that contain it.

Ependymomas are usually benign, have well-differentiated borders, resemble normal cells, and grow very slowly. The cells of anaplastic (malignant) ependymomas look abnormal and grow more rapidly than the cells of benign tumors.

MIXED GLIOMAS. These heterogeneous tumors contain elements of astrocytomas and ependymomas and/or oligodendrogliomas. These are rare tumors that usually occur in middle-aged adults, grow slowly, and do not usually spread beyond the part of the brain where they originate. Mixed gliomas behave like tumors composed of the highest-grade cells they contain.

Non-glial brain tumors

The most common brain tumors that do not develop from glial cells are medulloblastomas, meningiomas, and Schwannomas.

MEDULLOBLASTOMAS. Scientists once thought medulloblastomas (MDLs) developed from glial cells. These fast-growing, malignant tumors are now believed to originate in developing cells not normally present in the body after birth. They are sometimes called primitive neurodectal tumors (PNET).

MDL tumors are most common in children and are more common in boys than in girls. Only 30% of MDL tumors occur in adults. MDL tumors usually originate in the cerebellum (the part of the brain that controls coordination and some muscle activity), and are often carried to other parts of the brain by cerebrospinal fluid. MDL tumors rarely metastasize beyond the brain and spinal cord.

MENINGIOMAS. Meningiomas, which represent more than 20% of all primary brain tumors, originate in the membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord (meninges). These tumors are usually benign and most often occur in women aged 30-50 years old. Meningiomas grow so slowly that the brain can sometimes become accustomed to their presence. Meningiomas compress, rather than invade, brain tissue and may grow to be quite large before any symptoms appear.

SCHWANNOMAS. Schwannomas originate in the Schwann cells. These cells produce myelin, material that protects the acoustic nerve, which controls hearing. These benign tumors are twice as common in women as in men, and are most often diagnosed in patients between the ages 30-60.

Schwannomas grow very slowly, and many people adapt to the slight hearing loss and balance problems that are the tumors' earliest symptoms. A pear-shaped Schwannoma can cause sudden or gradual loss of hearing in an ear. As the tumor progresses, it can press on the nerves that control movement and feeling in the face, and cause headaches and facial numbness or tingling. The patient may have trouble walking, swallowing, or controlling eye movements, and the sense of taste can be affected. A Schwannoma that grows large enough to press on the brainstem can be deadly.

CHILDHOOD BRAIN TUMORS. Brain tumors that occur in children are described as supratentorial (in the upper part of the brain) or infratentorial (in the lowest part of the brain). Astrocytomas and ependymomas are common supratentorial tumors. Infratentorial tumors include medulloblastomas, astrocytomas, and ependymomas.

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