Ricker Polsdorfer, MD and Michael Jubinville, MPH
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.
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:
Other nervous system structures include:
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.
Brain tumors may be:
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:
Astrocytoma and oligodentroglioma in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Brain and spinal cord tumors in adults. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003088-pdf.pdf. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Brain and spinal cord tumors in children. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003089-pdf.pdf. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Brain tumors in children. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/pediatric-cancers/brain-tumors-in-children. 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:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 30, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Overview of intracranial tumors. Merck Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/intracranial-and-spinal-tumors/overview-of-intracranial-tumors. 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.
Copyright © EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.