Together we will find a cure Donate
Together we will find a cure Donate

Types of Brain Tumour

40% of all cancers spread to the brain

Types of Brain Tumour

Acoustic neuroma

An acoustic neuroma (or vestibular schwannoma) is a brain tumour which is benign and in most (but not all) cases usually slow growing.  The cells that form an acoustic neuroma are called 'schwann' cells, and make up the lining of the eighth cranial nerve as it passes through a tiny canal which connects the inner ear to the brain.  Unknown events lead to an overproduction of schwann cells and as they multiply, they form a small tumour which fills the canal.  As the tumour expands, it extends into the brain, assuming a pear shape and putting pressure on the nerves and brain.

The diagnosis of acoustic neuroma is usually made after a patient reports one-sided hearing loss, balance problems or tinnitus and the appropriate tests are carried out to locate the cause. CT and MRI scans are used to make the final diagnosis.

Acoustic neuromas are found most often in older people.

Astrocytomas

This is the most common type of glioma in both adults and children.  Astrocytomas are glial cell tumours that are derived from connective tissue cells called astrocytes.  These cells can be found anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.  

Astrocytomas are the most common type of childhood brain tumour.  They are generally subdivided into high-grade or low-grade tumours, with high-grade astrocytomas being the most malignant of all brain tumours.  

Anaplastic astrocytoma (also called grade 3 astrocytoma) and  glioblastoma multiforme (GBM or grade 4 astrocytoma) are the most common brain tumours in adults.  These are malignant brain gliomas.  They can sometimes spread to other parts of the brain.

Atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour (AT/RT)

This is a very rare but fast-growing tumour of the central nervous system which usually occurs in childhood. It can occur anywhere in the brain or the spinal cord and the symptoms vary according to its location, thus making it more difficult to diagnose.

AT/RT is responsible for around 3% of paediatric brain tumours. The tumour can be associated with mutations in a specific gene and these changes can occur spontaneously or be inherited. However, reports to date of the tumour in more than one family member are extremely rare. We don’t know what this gene does but some research is being done to find out more and identify any possible therapies.

AT/RT is a very difficult tumour to treat and, unfortunately, the outcomes remain poor. In general, older children with AT/RT tend to do better than young children. Cure rates for children over 3 are about 70%, while cure rates for children younger than 3 remain below 10%.

However, recent studies have reported that patients with newly diagnosed AT/RT had remission for 60-72 months after treatment with a specific combination of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Clinical trials are being carried out to assess the best combination.

Brainstem Glioma

Brain stem gliomas are particularly difficult to treat, whatever their grade. The brain stem is such a complicated and delicate part of the brain that completely removing the tumour is usually not possible. Unfortunately, high doses of radiotherapy are not recommended either as this may cause too much damage to the normal brain stem.

Brain stem glioma occurs most commonly in children between five and 10 years old. This is usually in the form of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. Most brain stem tumours develop in the pons and grow in a part of the brain stem where it can be difficult to perform surgery, making brain stem glioma challenging to treat.

Brain stem glioma accounts for approximately 15% of childhood brain tumours.

CNS Lymphoma

The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord. A lymphoma is a cancerous tumour of the lymph cells, which are part of the body's immune system and help to fight infection.

Some lymphomas in the head will have spread from lymphomas in other parts of the body. Lymphomas may also start in the brain and are called primary CNS lymphomas. Most of those affecting the brain are high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphomas.  The most common site for a CNS lymphoma is the cerebrum, but it can also spread to other parts of the brain.

It is common for more than one tumour to be present.

Craniopharyngioma

These tumours develop in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is close to the pituitary gland. They are most often diagnosed in children, teenagers and young adults and account for around 10% of brain tumours in young people, although they can be diagnosed in people of any age. As with most brain tumours, the main treatment is surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, if it is solid. Some tumours are filled with fluid (cystic) and these cannot usually be completely removed. Children with craniopharyngioma can have weight gain and growth problems.

Difuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG)

Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is a specific type of brain tumour which is one of a larger group referred to as brainstem gliomas. They are located within the brainstem which is the point at which the spinal cord enters into the brain.

DIPG usually occurs in children between 5-7 years of age and makes up 10-15% of all brain tumours in young children. The cancer cells infiltrate the surrounding nerves and are very difficult to remove surgically. Therefore, the treatment that is currently available is very limited.

The standard therapy for DIPG is six weeks of radiation therapy, which usually improves the symptoms, but only in the short term. Studies have shown that existing chemotherapy provides little improvement, although clinical studies are planned to assess the potential use of chemotherapy in combination with other drugs.

The average overall survival of children diagnosed with DIPG is approximately 9 months and less than 10% of children with DIPG survive beyond two years from diagnosis.

Common symptoms include:

  • Lack of facial control (droopy eyelids)
  • Double vision
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Seizures
  • Balance problems

The symptoms can develop slowly and subtly and may go unnoticed for months. In other cases, the symptoms may arise abruptly. A sudden onset of more than one symptom tends to occur with more rapidly growing tumours.

Ependymoma

Within the brain and spinal cord, there are nerve cells and also cells that support and protect the nerve cells. The supporting cells are called glial cells. A tumour of these cells is known as a glioma.

Ependymomas are a rare type of glioma. They develop from the ependymal cells which line the ventricles (fluid-filled spaces in the brain), and from the central canal of the spinal cord. They can be found in any part of the brain or spine, and in children are more common in the cerebellum.

Ependymomas may occasionally spread from the brain to the spinal cord in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is the fluid that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord.

People of all ages can develop ependymomas, including children. Tumours at the base of the brain, in an area called the posterior fossa, are more common in children. About 1 in 20 brain tumours (5%) is an ependymoma.

Gliobastoma multiforme

A Grade 4 astrocytoma is also called glioblastoma multiforme or GBM.  This is a high grade tumour which tends to grow and spread quite quickly.  It is the most common type of primary malignant brain tumour in adults, accounting for 52% of all primary brain tumour cases.

Haemangioblastoma

Most brain tumours are named after the type of cells from which they develop. A haemangioblastoma tumour is formed from cells that line the blood vessels, at an early stage of their development. It is almost always a benign tumour, which may be like a cyst (a fluid-filled area), and more than one tumour may be present.

Haemangioblastomas are usually found in the cerebellum, at the back of the brain. They are commonly slow-growing tumours and do not spread to other parts of the brain.

Haemangioblastomas can be found in adults and children, and mostly occur as part of a rare hereditary condition known as von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL).  Only 2 out of every 100 brain tumours (2%) are this type.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system and sometimes lymphoma can start in the brain.  This is called primary cerebral lymphoma.  They are more likely to be diagnosed in people with poor immunity either because they have had an organ transplant or because they have AIDS.  Lymphoma are treated differently to other types of brain tumour.

Medulloblastoma

These occur in the cerebellum and are always high grade malignant tumours.  They are one of the two most common brain tumours in children (the other being an astrocytoma in the cerebellum).  Medulloblastoma are most common in children between the ages of three and eight and are slightly more common in boys than girls. They can also occur in adults but are extremely rare.

Meningioma

A meningioma is a tumour of the meninges, the thin sheets of body tissue inside the skull which help to protect the brain.  These are called the meninges and they help to provide a protective lining for the brain and spinal cord. It can occur in any part of the brain or spinal cord, but the most common sites are at the surface of the brain, either over the top or at the skull base.  They are usually benign (not cancerous).

Some meningiomas are ‘a-typical’.  This means that they behave more aggressively than normally expected for meningiomas.  They can grow into surrounding brain tissue and may come back after they have been removed.

About 1 in 4 primary brain tumours in adults (25%) is a meningioma. They are more common in older people and in women. They are most often found in the forebrain or hindbrain. They are usually benign (not cancerous).

Mixed glioma

Most brain tumours are named after the cells from which they develop.  Within the brain there are nerve cells and also cells that support and protect the nerve cells.  The supporting cells are called glial cells.  A tumour of these cells is known as a glioma.

Astrocytomas, ependymomas and oligodendrogliomas  are all types of glioma. They are named after the cells from which they grow: astrocytes, ependymal cells and oligodendrocytes.

A mixed glioma is a malignant tumour that contains more than one of these cell types, for example, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. This type of mixed glioma is referred to as an oligo-astrocytoma and shows characteristics of both these tumours.

The most common site for a mixed glioma is the cerebrum, the main part of the brain. Like other malignant tumours, it may spread to other parts of the brain.

Although mixed gliomas are more common in adults, they can occur in children. For unknown reasons, they are more common in men than women.

Oligodendroglioma

Oligodendroglioma is a type of glioma and develops from cells called oligodendrocytes. These cells produce the fatty covering of nerve cells. This type of tumour is normally found in the cerebrum, particularly in the frontal or temporal lobes.

Oligodendrogliomas can be one of two types:- a well-differentiated tumour, which grows slowly, or an anaplastic oligodendroglioma, which grows more quickly.

Although this type of tumour is more common in adults, it can occur in children. For unknown reasons, it is more common in men than in women.

Pineal gland tumours

Only 1 in every 100 brain tumours (1%) are pineal tumours.

The pineal gland is found at the back of the third ventricle of the brain. Ventricles are fluid-filled spaces within the brain.

Pineal-region tumours can be made up of different types of cells. The most common type of tumour in the pineal region is known as a germinoma or germ cell tumour.  Germinomas develop from germ cells (cells in a very early stage of development). They are fast-growing and may often spread to other parts of the brain.

Other types of pineal tumour include: astrocytomas, teratomas, meningiomas, pineocytomas and pineoblastomas.

Although this type of tumour is more common in adults, it can occur in children. For unknown reasons, it is more common in men than in women.

Pituitary tumours

The pituitary gland, which is about the size of a pea, is located just under the brain where it lies in a small hollow in the skull, just below the eye. It is responsible for controlling the production of certain hormones by other organs in the body including the thyroid gland, ovaries and testes. It also directly produces other factors which have direct effects on blood pressure, kidney function and the regulation of pain.

The majority of the tumours, called adenomas, are benign and do not spread to other parts of the brain but remain within the gland. Because the pituitary gland has such varied functions, a tumour can be difficult to identify as the symptoms will differ between patients. They may also be similar to symptoms due to changes in the levels of the hormones which it controls. However, in addition to scanning, the presence of the tumour can also be confirmed in some cases by measuring the levels of specific hormones within the blood.

Depending on the exact location within the pituitary gland as well as the size, the tumour may also give rise to other symptoms. These include problems with vision, such as blurring, due to the pressure of the tumour on the eye.

The standard treatment is surgery to remove the tumour followed by chemotherapy to kill any of the remaining tumour cells. However, one of the potential side effects of tumour removal is that the pituitary gland is no longer able to make hormones. People may then be required to take hormone supplements to bring these back to normal levels.

Primitive neuroectodermal tumours (PNET's)

These tumours develop from cells that are left over from the earliest development of the body in the womb. Normally these cells are harmless, but sometimes they can become cancerous.  PNETs are very similar to medulloblastomas and mainly occur in children, but are also diagnosed in young adults.  The tumours are fast-growing, normally growing in the cerebellum, and can spread to other parts of the brain and to the spinal cord through the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

Spinal cord tumours

The spinal cord extends from the base of the brain, to down inside the bones of the backbone, which is also known as the spine or the spinal column. The spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column, but ends in the small of the back (the lumbar area).

Intramedullary tumours are located within the nerves of the spinal cord. There are several different types of cancer of the spinal cord, but the most common are astrocytomas and ependymomas and these are most common in children.

Intradural extramedullary tumours start inside the coverings of the spinal cord, but outside the cord itself. Meningiomas and nerve-sheath tumours, such as schwannomas, are the most common types of intradural extramedullary spinal tumour and most often are diagnosed in adults.


If you or someone you know has been diagnosed and would like support, visit:

Related Sections

Make a difference

We are striving to fund a network of seven dedicated research centres. Help us fund the fight. Together we will find a cure.

£5
£10
£25
£50
£100