Germ Cell Tumors of the Brain Symptoms & Causes

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A diagnosis of a germ cell tumor of the brain comes with a lot of questions and uncertainty about your child’s health, like:

  • Exactly what type of tumor does my child have?
  • How is my child going to be treated?
  • What’s the long-term outlook for my child?

At Boston Children’s Hospital, we know that these concerns are entirely natural.  To help put your mind as ease, we’ve provided answers to many commonly asked questions about germ cell tumors of the brain in the following pages. When you meet with our team of doctors, they’ll be able to explain your child’s condition and treatment options fully.

What are germ cell tumors?

  • Germ cell tumors are tumors that begin in germ cells, or cells that can develop into the reproductive cells in the body. When two germ cells combine, they form the fetus, the placenta and then all the organs.
  • Germ cell tumors are a widely varied group of tumors. They range from very low grade or benign to highly malignant or aggressively growing cancers.

What are the different types of germ cell tumors in the brain?

Pure germ cell tumors

  • Pure cell tumors are very immature (underdeveloped) tumors. They rarely secrete any chemicals into the bloodstream.
  • These tumors respond well to therapy.
  • Pure cell tumors have a 90 percent cure rate.

Mixed germ cell tumors

  • Mixed germ cell tumors (also known as nongerminomatous germ cell tumors) require more aggressive therapy than pure germ cell tumors.
  • Mixed germ cells secrete chemicals into the blood stream that can be detected inblood and spinal fluid tests.
  • Mixed germ cell tumors contain cancerous, or malignant, forms of these tumors, including:
    • embryonal carcinoma
    • choriocarcinoma
    • endodermal sinus [yolk sac] tumors
  • Mixed germ cell tumors have a 70 – 75 percent cure rate
    • In mixed germ cell tumors, there can be a teratoma component and a malignant component.
    • Benign teratomas can grow aggressively, although they do not spread.
    • In Malignant teratomas (such as one with an embryonal carcinoma), the malignant componentcan grow aggressively and spread to other parts of the body.
    • In malignant teratomas chemotherapy and radiation treat the malignant component, but the teratoma component sometimes does notrespond well to chemotherapy and additional surgery is sometimes necessary to remove the remaining tumor.  

Causes of Germ Cell Tumors

What causes a germ cell tumor of the brain?
The cause of germ cells tumors is not well known. Usually, germ cells migrate to the gonads during fetal development and become an egg in the female ovaries or sperm in the male testes. However, when these germ cells don’t move to the right area, they become trapped in the brain and multiply in areas where they shouldn’t.

Signs and symptoms of Germ Cell Tumors

Symptoms vary depending on size and location of tumor. 
For germ cell tumors located in the pineal gland region, symptoms may include:

  • hydrocephalus
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • behavioral or cognitive changes
  • uncoordinated body movements (ataxia)
  • visual changes, including double vision and difficulty looking up
For germ cell tumors found in the suprasellar region or pituitary gland, symptoms might include:
The symptoms of a brain tumor may resemble other conditions or medical problems, ranging from the simple to the serious. Always consult your child's physician for diagnosis and treatment.

Questions to ask your doctor

If your child has just been diagnosed with a germ cell tumor of the brain, you probably have a lot of question and concerns on your mind. When you meet with your child’s doctor, it can be easy to be overwhelmed with information and forget the questions you wanted to ask.
A lot of parents find it helpful to jot down questions beforehand. That way, when you talk to your child’s clinician, you can be sure that all your concerns are addressed. Remember that physicians are open to learning from families too. Attend conferences, read up on updated materials and don’t be afraid to share what you have learned.
Some questions you might ask include:

  • How will my child’s tumor be treated?
  • What are the long-term effects of these treatments?
  • How should I explain the brain tumor to my child’s siblings?
  • Where can I go for emotional support?
  • What other resources can you point me to for more information?
We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

Boston Children's Hospital 300 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115 617-355-6000 | 800-355-7944