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What causes a brain tumour?

Up to 40% of all cancers spread to the brain

Brain tumours are indiscriminate; they can affect anyone at any age 

No single, definitive cause has yet been identified for brain tumours. Some risk factors have been identified, but due to the complex and unique health history for each patient, scientists are still unable to answer this fundamental question.

What are the risk factors that might lead to a brain tumour?

We’ve collated extensive information in order to bring you the latest thinking on what environmental and lifestyle risks might be increasing the chances of being diagnosed with a brain tumour. This page also includes some of the most frequently asked questions about what causes a brain tumour. We will be updating this page regularly so please do keep coming back for the latest information.

Can radiation cause a brain tumour?

The most well-known environmental risk factor for the development of brain tumours is exposure to radiation, especially due to previous cancer treatment.

Do mobile phones cause brain tumours?

We’ve all seen the media headlines that both deny and claim that mobile phones can cause cancer, can cause brain tumours. Most research claims that there is no conclusive evidence to link mobile phone use and an increased risk of a brain tumour.

Some scientists still strongly contest this and some studies suggest there is a connection between mobile phone use, glioma and acoustic neuroma (a form of schwannoma brain tumour).  

Due to the lack of clarity surrounding risk, the NHS offers some general guidance about reducing exposure to mobile phones:

  • Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and avoid using it more than necessary
  • Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short
  • Use a hands-free kit to keep your phone as far away from your head as possible, and keep your mobile phone away from your body when it's in standby mode
  • Only use your phone when the reception is strong – this is often indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen. Weak reception causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base station
  • Consider the specific absorption rate (SAR) of a mobile phone before you buy it – this is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy

See also our blog post on this subject (from 2016).

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Does the risk of getting a brain tumour increase with age?

As humans age, the higher the risk of developing a wide range of health conditions. For example, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumour is most common amongst 75 to 84-year-olds.

Can the risk of a brain tumour be inherited?

There is evidence that, in a very small number of cases, inherited genetic factors or conditions have contributed to the development of a brain tumour. These conditions include Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau disease.  

Scientists have also found “clusters” of brain tumors within some families without a link to these known hereditary conditions. Studies are underway to try to understand more.

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Do pesticides and farming cause brain tumours?

There is some evidence of a connection between pesticide exposure (including some pesticides approved for domestic/home use), farming and an increased risk of developing a brain tumour.

This applies both to the development of brain tumours in adults (due to personal exposure to toxins) and to the development of paediatric brain tumours (due to personal childhood or parental occupational exposure to toxins, particularly for mothers during pregnancy but also for fathers pre-conceptually).

Unfortunately, the type of pesticides and specific brain tumours related to their exposure were not recorded in most of the studies that formed the basis of these reviews.

Certain chemicals have been shown to cause brain tumours in animal studies, but these results cannot be extrapolated to prove such a direct effect in humans.

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What other everyday chemicals might cause brain tumours?

There is also a study that suggests a connection between being a hairdresser, personal hair dye use and an increased risk of developing a brain tumour. 

No specific products or chemicals have been identified as being a direct cause of brain tumours, and any connection is hard to clarify due to the complexity of the wide variety of chemicals used in hair products, the variation in dosage and exposure time of individual people, and the interplay between chemicals and individual genetics and metabolism.

Scientists have also reviewed the association between a range of solvents, occupational exposure and glioma risk, but the results were inconsistent and the conclusions were that no firm causal relationship could be established. 

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Can what we eat cause a brain tumour?

High levels of blood glucose (blood sugar) is related to poorer survival rates in glioblastoma (GBM) brain tumours, but has not been identified as a risk factor. Neither has obesity, diabetes mellitus type 2, nor high cholesterol. 

There is some evidence however of a connection between the consumption of cured meats containing nitrates (used as a food preservative) during pregnancy and an increased risk of the development of a glioma brain tumour in the child.  

This is specific only to those who have a genetic predisposition related to nitrates and the potentially carcinogenic compounds formed from them during digestion. 

No risk for the occurrence of primary brain tumours in the general population has otherwise been established in relation to cured meats. 

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Can viruses cause a brain tumour? 

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been indicated as a possible contributory factor to the development of gliomas, but it is not clear what role the virus may play, if any.

The Epstein-Barr virus is a member of the gamma herpes simplex family of DNA viruses and has been shown to cause infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever). It is strongly linked with the development of several cancers, including B-cell lymphomas, nasopharyngeal, and gastric carcinomas, which is why it has also been investigated in the context of brain tumours.

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Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) cause brain tumours?

Estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been linked to a small increased risk of developing a glioma or meningioma, but not estrogen-progestin hormone therapy.

What drugs might cause a brain tumour? 

A drug called Cyproterone Acetate or CPA acts on testosterone and is used in a number of medical conditions in low doses with no connection to the development of brain tumours. However when used in very high doses, for example to control aggressive sexual disorders or support transgender women, it has been shown to induce meningioma. 

If the CPA is stopped, these meningioma tumours usually shrink and there is no need for any further treatment. It is therefore very important that you disclose to your medical team if you are taking CPA and have been diagnosed with a meningioma.

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Can a fall or head injury cause a brain tumour?

There is no evidence that hitting your head on something, falling and banging your head, being knocked out, or experiencing any kind of traumatic head injury can cause a brain tumour.

Can stress cause a brain tumour?

There is no evidence that experiencing stress can cause a brain tumour.

Page last updated October 2018. Review date January 2019.


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