How Do You Get a Brain Tumor?

By The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center


A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in or near the brain. These tumors can originate within the brain (primary brain tumors) or spread to the brain from other parts of the body (secondary or metastatic brain tumors). 

Table of Contents

  • Types of Brain Tumors
  • Causes of Brain Tumors
  • Symptoms and Signs of a Brain Tumor
  • Complications of Brain Tumors
  • How to Diagnose Brain Tumors
  • Treatment Options for Brain Tumors

Types of Brain Tumors

  • Gliomas and Related Brain Tumors: These tumors arise from glial cells that support nerve cells in the brain tissue. Types include:
  • Astrocytoma: A prevalent type of glioma, originating from astrocytes, a type of glial cell, and can manifest anywhere within the brain.
  • Glioblastoma: The most aggressive malignant primary brain tumor, characterized by rapid growth and infiltration into surrounding brain tissue.
  • Oligodendroglioma: A rare type of tumor arising from oligodendrocytes.
  • Ependymoma: Originates from ependymal cells lining the ventricles and spinal cord, representing a tumor that arises from these specific cell types.
  • Choroid Plexus Tumors: Originating in the choroid plexus cells responsible for cerebrospinal fluid production, are rare benign growths that predominantly affect young children. These tumors can lead to hydrocephalus due to a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, resulting in increased intracranial pressure.

Brain tumors encompass a wide range of types, including both benign and malignant forms. Benign tumors are typically slow-growing with clear borders and are less likely to recur after treatment, such as Meningiomas and Pituitary Adenomas. In contrast, malignant tumors are often aggressive, invading nearby tissues, and tend to recur after treatment, leading to a poorer prognosis. To learn more, visit our articles covering the different types of brain tumors

Causes of Brain Tumors

  • Exact Causes: Not fully understood, but possible factors include:
    • Genetic mutations leading to uncontrolled cell growth: Certain genetic mutations can disrupt the normal regulation of cell growth and division in the brain, leading to the formation of tumors. These mutations may be inherited or acquired over time.
    • Cancer elsewhere in the body: In some cases, cancerous cells from tumors in other parts of the body can spread to the brain, leading to the development of secondary brain tumors, also known as metastatic brain tumors.
  • Risk Factors:
    • Family history: Individuals with a family history of brain tumors or certain genetic syndromes may have an increased risk of developing brain tumors themselves. Genetic predisposition can play a significant role in the development of these tumors.
    • Age: While brain tumors can occur at any age, the incidence increases with age, with elderly individuals being at higher risk. This may be due to cumulative exposure to environmental factors and age-related changes in cellular processes.
    • Exposure to chemicals and radiation: Occupational exposure to certain chemicals or ionizing radiation, as well as therapeutic radiation used to treat other medical conditions, can increase the risk of developing brain tumors. Prolonged exposure to carcinogenic substances or radiation can lead to genetic damage and the development of tumors in the brain.

Symptoms and Signs of a Brain Tumor

Early detection and treatment of pediatric brain tumors are vital for improving outcomes. Symptoms can vary based on tumor size and location, emphasizing the importance of recognizing signs early to enhance prognosis.

General Symptoms

  • Headaches: Headaches can sometimes be caused by brain tumors when the tumor grows large enough to exert pressure on nearby nerves or blood vessels. However, it's crucial to understand that most headaches are unrelated to brain tumors, as the brain itself cannot sense pain. 

Delve deeper into the connection between brain tumors and headaches.

  • Seizures: Characterized by uncontrolled movements or convulsions, seizures can serve as an indication of a brain tumor. Recognizing the different types of seizures and their possible association with brain tumors is vital for accurate diagnosis and timely intervention, as they signify uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain.
  • Fatigue: Feeling excessively tired can be a symptom of a brain tumor due to the tumor's impact on brain function and energy levels. As the tumor grows, it may disrupt normal brain activity, leading to increased fatigue and a general feeling of tiredness.

Location-Dependant Specific Symptoms 

  • Weakness in Limbs or Face: A tumor's pressure on the brain or its involvement with the nerves controlling movement can cause a sense of weakness in both your face, arms, or legs. As the tumor grows, it can compress or interfere with these neural pathways, leading to muscle weakness or paralysis in specific areas of the body.
  • Impaired Coordination: Difficulty with balance and fine motor skills can be a key symptom due to a possible tumor's impact on the brain's coordination centers and motor pathways. As the tumor grows, it can disrupt these areas, leading to problems with balance, coordination, and precise movements.
  • Difficulty Walking: When the tumor affects the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating movement and balance. As the tumor grows and affects this area, it can lead to problems with gait, coordination, and overall mobility.
  • Changes in Senses: Changes in your common senses, such as the altered perception of taste and smell, blurred vision, hearing loss, and consistent ringing in your ears, can be symptoms of a brain tumor, particularly when the tumor affects regions of the brain responsible for processing sensory information, including the cerebellum. As the tumor grows and impacts these areas, it can lead to alterations or impairments in sensory perception.
  • Mood or Behavior Changes: Mood swings, altered behavior, or personality shifts, along with difficulties in thinking, learning, and concentration, should not be overlooked, as they may indicate underlying neurological challenges, including brain tumors. Symptoms like irritability, depression, or personality changes can also be indicative of such conditions.
  • Nausea or Vomiting: Nausea and vomiting, particularly when experienced in the morning or unrelated to meals, can be concerning. These symptoms may indicate increased intracranial pressure, often associated with certain types of brain tumors. 
Brain imaging tumor

Complications of Brain Tumors

  • Peritumoral Edema: Caused by swelling around the tumor, known as peritumoral edema, occurs due to increased fluid accumulation in the brain tissue surrounding the tumor. This swelling can exert pressure on nearby structures, leading to neurological symptoms such as headaches, cognitive changes, and weakness.
  • Seizures: Seizures are a common manifestation in patients with brain tumors, occurring as a result of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can be focal, affecting specific areas of the brain, or generalized, involving the entire brain. The presence of seizures often prompts medical evaluation, leading to the discovery of an underlying brain tumor.
  • Depression: The emotional impact of a brain tumor diagnosis and subsequent treatment can lead to depression in affected individuals. Coping with the uncertainty of the illness, undergoing invasive treatments, and facing potential changes in cognitive and physical functioning can contribute to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.
  • Vision and Hearing Loss: Brain tumors located near the optic nerve or auditory pathways can lead to vision and hearing loss, respectively. Compression or damage to these sensory pathways by the tumor can result in visual disturbances, such as blurriness or loss of peripheral vision, and hearing impairments, such as difficulty hearing sounds or ringing in the ears.
  • Fluid Buildup in the Skull: Increased intracranial pressure can occur due to fluid buildup within the skull, often resulting from obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid flow or compression of brain tissue by the tumor. This buildup of pressure can cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, and changes in mental status, requiring medical intervention to alleviate the pressure and manage symptoms.

How to Diagnose Brain Tumors

  • Neurological Examination: A comprehensive neurological examination is conducted to assess various aspects of brain function, including motor function, reflexes, sensory perception, and coordination. Neurological deficits observed during the examination, such as muscle weakness, abnormal reflexes, or impaired coordination, may indicate the presence of a brain tumor and help guide further diagnostic evaluation.
  • Imaging Studies: MRI and CT scans play crucial roles in diagnosing brain tumors by providing detailed images of the brain's structures and identifying abnormalities. To learn more, read our article Will a CT Scan Show a Brain Tumor?
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): An EEG is a diagnostic test that measures the electrical activity of the brain. It involves placing electrodes on the scalp to record brain wave patterns, which can help identify abnormal electrical activity associated with seizures or other neurological disorders. In patients with brain tumors, an EEG may be used to detect seizure activity or assess the effects of the tumor on brain function.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy involves the surgical removal of a tissue sample from the brain for microscopic analysis. This procedure is typically performed under guidance from imaging studies to accurately target the area of concern. The tissue sample obtained during the biopsy will be examined by a pathologist to determine the presence of abnormal cells, their type, and characteristics, providing a definitive diagnosis of the brain tumor. Biopsy results also help healthcare professionals determine the tumor's grade, which guides treatment decisions and prognosis.

Treatment Options for Brain Tumors

Treatment options for brain tumors vary depending on factors such as tumor type, location, size, and the patient's overall health. From surgery to radiation therapy and chemotherapy, each approach offers its benefits and considerations tailored to the specific needs of the individual.

  • Surgery: Surgery is a primary treatment for accessible brain tumors, with various techniques tailored to factors like tumor location, size, and type. Emerging minimally invasive procedures like endoscopic surgery offer promising options for faster recovery and reduced trauma.
  • Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy, utilizing high-energy beams, is a crucial treatment option for brain tumors. Techniques like external beam radiation, stereotactic radiosurgery, and brachytherapy precisely target cancerous cells while minimizing damage to healthy surrounding tissues.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy, employing drugs to inhibit cancer cell growth and division, is a significant treatment option for brain tumors. Whether through systemic or targeted approaches, the choice of chemotherapy is tailored to the tumor's responsiveness to specific drugs and the patient's overall health.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy: Targeted drugs offer a precise approach to treating brain tumors by selectively targeting cancer cells while minimizing harm to healthy tissue. These drugs disrupt signals that promote cancer cell growth, inhibit tumor blood vessel formation, or stimulate the immune system to combat cancer cells, providing promising treatment options with fewer side effects.

The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center offers additional reading around additional available options for What are the Best Treatments for Brain Cancer, plus what the best treatments are right for you. 

Best Clinic For Brain Tumor Testing

Welcome to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, your premier destination for expert guidance on brain tumor diagnosis and testing. Discovering how you might develop a brain tumor is crucial, and our clinic is here to provide the answers you need.

Located in Durham, NC, our renowned facility is distinguished for its commitment to excellence in brain tumor care. With a team of highly skilled experts, cutting-edge technology, and a compassionate approach, we offer comprehensive testing and treatment options tailored to your needs.

Our clinic's mission is to guide you through every step of the diagnostic process, ensuring you receive personalized care and support. Whether you're seeking answers about the causes of brain tumors or exploring treatment options, our experts are here to help.

Schedule an appointment with one of our leading doctors today to learn more about brain tumor diagnosis and testing at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of brain tumors?

Brain tumors vary widely in type and characteristics. Some common types include: Gliomas, Oligodendroglioma, Ependymoma, Choroid Plexus Tumors, and Meninomas and Pituitary Adenomas: Benign tumors with slow growth and clear borders. Each type varies in aggressiveness, symptoms, and treatment options. It's essential to consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and management tailored to individual needs.

What are the primary causes of brain tumors?

While the exact causes of brain tumors are not fully understood, genetic mutations play a significant role. Certain genetic mutations can disrupt the normal regulation of cell growth in the brain, leading to the formation of tumors. These mutations may be inherited or acquired over time, contributing to tumor development.

Can brain tumors originate from cancer in other parts of the body?

Yes, in some cases, cancerous cells from tumors in other parts of the body can spread to the brain, leading to the development of secondary brain tumors, also known as metastatic brain tumors. This process, known as metastasis, occurs when cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to establish new tumors in the brain. Understanding these potential causes is crucial for early detection and effective treatment of brain tumors.