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Brain and other central nervous system tumours

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The central nervous system (CNS) is the part of the nervous system that consists of the brain and spinal cord.

There are many different types of tumours that can arise in the CNS. They are named according to the type of cell or part of the brain/spinal cord from which they arise.

Tumours which start in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumours (or cancers). Other types of cancers which spread to the brain from other parts of the body are referred to as secondary tumours (or metastases). This section focuses only on primary brain and spinal cord  tumours.

Brain and other CNS tumours occur when abnormal cells in these organs grow in an uncontrolled way. As they grow and spread these tumours cause a wide range of symptoms depending on which parts of the brain or spinal cord are affected.

There are many different types of cells in the brain and other parts of the CNS, and each of these can develop into different types of tumours that need to be treated in different ways. The most common types of brain and other CNS tumours in children are:

  • Gliomas – these develop from glial cells. There are several types of glial cells which give rise to different types of gliomas:
    • Astrocytomas develop from a glial cell called an astrocyte. This is a cell that supports the nerve cells in the brain. The terms 'astrocytoma' and 'glioma' are often used interchangeably. Astrocytomas/Gliomas are categorised as low or high grade according to how 'aggressive' the tumour cells look under a microscope. The Grade I and II are low grade tumours whereas Grade III and IV are considered high grade. The most common types of astrocytomas are:
      • Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma (JPA) is the commonest low grade tumour in children. It usually occurs in cerebellum or the backpart of the brain.
      • The commonest high grade tumours are Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) which is a grade IV tumour, and Anaplastic Astrocytoma  (Grade III) are both high grade tumours. These generally develop in the upper part of the brain.
    • Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPGs) develop in the brain stem. This is the part of the CNS that “connects” and lies between the brain and the spinal cord. It acts as the control centre for vital body functions such as the heart rate and breathing.
    • Optic pathway gliomas arise either in the optic nerve, which connects the brain with the eyes or the vision pathways in the brain.
  • Ependymomas develop from ependymal cells. These cells line the fluid-filled areas of the brain (called the ventricles) and spinal cord, through which the cerebrospinal fluid flows. Ependymomas are given different names, depending on where they occur in the brain. They can spread to other parts of the CNS.
  • Medulloblastomas – these tumours develop from a type of nerve cell in the cerebellum (the area at the back of the brain that controls movement and coordination). They tend to be aggressive tumours and often spread to other parts of the brain or spinal cord.
  • There are many other types of brain and spinal cord tumours. These are much rarer. They include atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumours (ATRT), primitive neuroectodermal tumours (CNS-PNET), pineoblastoma and CNS germ cell tumours .

Risk factors

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a certain condition or disease, such as cancer. In adults, lifestyle and environmental...

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Symptoms of brain and other CNS tumours can depend on where the tumour is, how fast it is growing and the child’s age. Some symptoms...

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Your child will have a number of tests to investigate their symptoms and confirm a diagnosis of a brain or other CNS tumour, including:

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Treatment and care of children with cancer is usually provided by a team of health professionals called a multidisciplinary team. Members of this team are...

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Diagnosis of cancer in a child is a very difficult time for the child, their family and their friends. You might feel overwhelmed, scared, anxious...

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Chance of cure

Many children with cancer are cured of the disease. Children’s bodies have great capacity for healing. Also, huge improvements have been made in the treatment...

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Clinical trials

Researchers are trialling new ways to diagnose and treat different types of cancer. Your child may be invited to be part of a clinical trial...

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More information

For more information about specific types of childhood brain and other CNS tumours, see:

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published: Sunday, 23 August, 2015