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Brain tumors are described differently than tumors found in other parts of the body. A tumor can be benign or malignant. A benign tumor is not cancer and will not spread to other parts of the body. However, a benign tumor can still grow and put pressure on tissue in the brain. This pressure may cause damage to healthy brain tissue and interrupt normal functions of the brain. In certain parts of the brain this type of pressure can interfere with vital functions such as breathing or heart rate and cause death.

A malignant tumor is cancer. Cancer cells grow in an abnormal way and invade tissue around them. Brain cancer rarely spreads to other areas of the body, but it can spread throughout the brain. Damage caused by malignant tumors can cause severe disability and death.

Brain Tumor

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Normal Anatomy and the Development of Brain Tumors

The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS affects all of the body including interpreting sensory information, regulating certain functions like heart rate and breathing, and coordinating physical movements. The brain is also responsible for memory, learning, and emotions.

Certain functions of the brain lie in specific areas. The three main areas of the brain and functions that they are responsible for include:

  • Cerebrum—Two large hemispheres of the brain (right and left hemisphere). The cerebrum is the control center for thought, reason, and speech. It processes sensory information from the body and houses the emotional center of the brain.
  • Cerebellum—Found at the back of the head near the base. The cerebellum primarily coordinates movement and balance.
  • Brain stem—Rear bottom portion of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. Allows nerves to transmit messages back and forth to the brain. There are three parts to the brain stem— the pons, medulla oblongata, and midbrain. These structures control involuntary actions, such as breathing, digestion, and heart function.

Other nervous system structures include:

  • Neuron—More commonly known as a nerve cell. Connected neurons create nerves and brain tissue.
  • Meninges—three layers of tissue that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. The meninges lie inside the skull and spine.
  • Skull—The bony shell that surrounds and protects the brain.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)—Clear, circulating fluid that surrounds, protects, and cushions the brain and spinal cord. Sits inside the meninges.
  • Blood-brain barrier (BBB)—A barrier that prevents certain substances in circulating blood from getting to the brain tissue. The BBB can keep out harmful substances like infections or toxins but it can also block medications that may be helpful in treating brain conditions.

Cell division and cell death are a normal process in the body to replace old or damaged cells. Sometimes this division and new cell growth can continue after it is supposed to stop. This excess growth forms a tumor. Benign tumors grow in the area but do not invade nearby tissue. Malignant tumors or cancer grow into nearby tissue. It is not always clear what causes the abnormal growth but is often a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Types of Brain Cancer

Brain tumors may be:

  • Primary brain tumors start in the brain or in the layers that surround it. It is the second most common type of cancer in children and adolescents.
  • Secondary brain tumors are tumors that develop because of cancer in other parts of the body. Cancer cells can break from the original site of cancer and travel to the brain in the bloodstream. They are also known as metastatic tumors. Secondary tumors are always malignant.

The location of the tumors will determine the effects and the treatment plan. Most brain tumors are named for the place they start, for example:

  • Meningiomas—Tumors start in the meninges, layers of tissue that surround the brain and spinal cord.
  • Gliomas—The glial cells support and protect the neurons of the CNS. There are 3 types of glial cells (astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, ependymal cells) where tumors can start. Astrocytoma is a common type of glioma in adults and children.
  • Pituitary adenomas—The pituitary is a hormone-secreting endocrine gland located at the base of the brain. Tumors start in the cells of the gland.
  • Nerve sheath tumors—Neurons are covered in a myelin sheath, which speeds the transmission of messages back and forth to the brain. Nerve sheath tumors may cause loss of the protective sheath, which can affect the function of the neurons.
  • Medulloblastomas—cancer that develops in the cerebellum. Though it is rare all together, it is the most common type of pediatric brain cancer.


Astrocytoma and oligodentroglioma in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.

Brain and spinal cord tumors in adults. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed August 13, 2015.

Brain and spinal cord tumors in children. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed August 13, 2015.

Brain tumors in children. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated January 2009. Accessed August 13, 2015.

General information about adult brain tumors. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated February 13, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.

Meningioma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated March 30, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.

Overview of intracranial tumors. Merck Professional Version website. Available at: Updated December 2012. Accessed August 13, 2015.

Last reviewed May 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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