Brain Tumors Symptoms & Causes

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The brain is the organ that controls a lot of what we do—voluntarily (like thinking) or involuntarily (like breathing). The brain controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, respiration, temperature, hunger and processes that regulate the body.

The brain can be divided into three main parts:

  • the cerebrum
  • the brainstem
  • the cerebellum

The cerebrum is composed of the right and left hemispheres, and its functions include:

  • initiation of movement
  • coordination of movement
  • temperature sensitivity
  • touch
  • vision
  • hearing
  • judgment
  • reasoning
  • problem-solving
  • emotions
  • learning

The brainstem, which includes the midbrain, the pons and the medulla, is responsible for:

  • movement of the eyes and mouth
  • relaying sensory messages (i.e., heat, pain, sound)
  • hunger
  • respiration
  • consciousness
  • cardiac function
  • body temperature
  • involuntary muscle movements
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • vomitings
  • wallowing

The cerebellum is located at the back of the head, and its functions are to:

  • coordinate voluntary muscle movements
  • maintain posture, balance and equilibrium

Other parts of the brain and central nervous system include the following:

  • The brain floats in a liquid called cerebral spinal fluid, which acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain. This fluid is made in small spaces within the brain, called ventricles.
  • The spinal cord contains bundles of nerve fibers that emanate from the brain and spread out to all parts of the body. These fibers allow signals from the brain to travel to and communicate with different parts of the body.
  • The meninges are the three layers of protective tissue that wrap around the brain and spinal cord, which are surrounded, respectively, by the skull and spinal column (backbone).
  • The brain is connected to the face by 12 specific cranial nerves that control most eye, face and tongue movements.

Brain Tumor Symptoms in Children

Each child may experience symptoms of a brain tumor differently, and symptoms vary depending on size and location of the tumor—both in the brain and elsewhere in the central nervous system.

There is no space in the skull for anything except for the brain and its fluid. This means that any tumor, extra tissue or extra fluid can cause pressure on the brain.

Symptoms related to pressure on the brain can include:

  • headache
  • vomiting (usually in the morning)
  • nausea
  • personality changes
  • irritability
  • drowsiness
  • depression
  • decreased cardiac and respiratory function, and even eventually coma, if left untreated

Symptoms of brain tumors in the cerebellum may include:

  • vomiting (usually occurs in the morning without nausea)
  • headache
  • uncoordinated muscle movements
  • ataxia (problems walking)

Brain tumors in the lower part of the brain often press on the cerebellum, which may cause symptoms including:

  • ataxia (problems walking)
  • loss of control of the nerves and/or muscles of the face

Brain tumors in the brainstem may compress nerves and cause symptoms including:

  • visual changes, such as double vision
  • paralysis of nerves and/or muscles of the face, or half of the body
  • respiratory changes
  • clumsy, uncoordinated walk

Symptoms of brain tumors in the cerebrum may include:

  • seizures
  • visual changes
  • slurred speech
  • paralysis or weakness on half of the body or face
  • drowsiness and/or confusion
  • personality changes and/or impaired judgment
  • short-term memory loss
  • ataxia (problems walking)
  • communication problems

Symptoms of brain tumors in the optic pathway (eyes) may include:

  • visual problems
  • puberty or growth abnormalities
  • excessive urination

Symptoms of tumors in the spine (usually spreading from a tumor at a higher point on the spinal cord) may include:

  • bowel or bladder dysfunction
  • back pain
  • weakness or loss of sensation in one area of the body, depending on where in the spine the tumor is located

It’s important to remember that the symptoms of a brain tumor may resemble other, more common conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

What Causes Brain Tumors in Children?

Although we do not know for certain why brain tumors develop in certain children, we know that a small number of brain tumors may be related to genetics. In these cases, a child may have a brain tumor, because he has inherited certain genes from his parents, or because his genes have mutated on their own.

How are brain tumors classified?

Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center uses the World Health Organization (WHO) classification system for most pediatric brain tumors. This system incorporates:

  • different aspects of the appearance of the cells, which indicate what type of brain cell the tumor arose from and how "aggressive" (likely to spread)  the cells are likely to be
  • the tumor's location within the brain

Why do brain tumors sometimes have more than one name?

Brain tumors have traditionally been given names (classified) according to how they looked under a microscope. As researchers have come to understand more about the cellular and molecular differences between groups of tumors, some tumor names have changed.

What does it mean to say that a tumor is “benign” or “malignant”?

Tumors also can be classified as benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors usually remain localized, without the ability to spread. Complete removal of the tumor is usually all that is required for treatment.
  • Malignant tumors can spread and invade other areas, meaning that even if the tumor is surgically removed, other cells will grow back, continuing to invade your child’s body.

What is meant by the “grade” of the tumor?

Many pediatric brain tumors have a second important component to them after their name, which is the grade. This is an estimate of how aggressive or malignant a particular type of tumor is.

For example, glial tumors come in four grades. Grade I is the lowest, meaning that these tumors tend to be less aggressive than their grade IV counterparts, which are usually highly malignant and very difficult to treat.

The grade is based on a number of factors, such as how many cells are dividing at any one time or how different the cells look from their normal counterparts.

Who’s at risk for pediatric brain tumors?

  • Children with certain genetic conditions (such as neurofibromatosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, Li-Frameni syndrome, Gorlin’s syndrome and retinoblastoma) have an increased risk of developing tumors of the central nervous system.
  • If your child has received radiation therapy to the head as part of previous treatment for other malignancies, he also may be at an increased risk for new brain tumors.
  • Research has been looking into the relationship between past exposures to certain chemicals and having a child with a brain tumor. It is currently thought that some chemicals may change the structure of a gene that protects the body from diseases, including cancer.

Types of pediatric brain tumors

To learn more about different types of brain tumors, visit our Pediatric Brain Tumors page on the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s website

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- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

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