Brain tumour (adults)

ADAM Health 6 minute read November 3, 2019

Alternative names: Glioblastoma multiforme — adults; Ependymoma — adults; Glioma — adults; Astrocytoma — adults; Medulloblastoma — adults; Neuroglioma — adults; Oligodendroglioma — adults; Lymphoma — adults; Vestibular schwannoma (acoustic neuroma) — adults; Meningioma — adults; Cancer — brain tumour (adults)

Definition: A primary brain tumour is a group (mass) of abnormal cells that start in the brain.


Primary brain tumours include any tumour that starts in the brain. Primary brain tumours can start from brain cells, the membranes around the brain (meninges), nerves, or glands.

Tumours can directly destroy brain cells. They can also damage cells by producing inflammation, placing pressure on other parts of the brain, and increasing pressure within the skull.

The cause of primary brain tumours is unknown. There are many risk factors that could play a role:

  • Radiation therapy used to treat brain cancers increases the risk of brain tumours up to 20 or 30 years later.
  • Some inherited conditions increase the risk of brain tumours, including neurofibromatosis, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and Turcot syndrome.
  • Lymphomas that begin in the brain in people with a weakened immune system are sometimes linked to infection by the Epstein-Barr virus.

These have not proven to be risk factors:

  • Exposure to radiation at work, or to power lines, cell phones, cordless phones, or wireless devices
  • Head injuries
  • Smoking
  • Hormone therapy


Brain tumours are classified depending on:

  • Location of the tumour
  • Type of tissue involved
  • Whether they are noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant)
  • Other factors

Sometimes, tumours that start out less aggressive can change their biologic behaviour and become more aggressive.

Tumours can occur at any age, but many types are most common in a certain age group. In adults, gliomas and meningiomas are the most common.

Gliomas come from glial cells such as astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells. Gliomas are divided into three types:

  • Astrocytic tumours include astrocytomas (can be noncancerous), anaplastic astrocytomas, and glioblastomas.
  • Oligodendroglial tumours. Some primary brain tumours are made up of both astrocytic and oligodendrocytic tumours. These are called mixed gliomas.
  • Glioblastomas are the most aggressive type of primary brain tumour.

Meningiomas and schwannomas are two other types of brain tumours. These tumours:

  • Occur most often between ages 40 and 70.
  • Are usually noncancerous, but can still cause serious complications and death from their size or location. Some are cancerous and aggressive.

Other primary brain tumours in adults are rare. These include:

  • Ependymomas
  • Craniopharyngiomas
  • Pituitary tumours
  • Primary (central nervous system — CNS) lymphoma
  • Pineal gland tumours
  • Primary germ cell tumours of the brain



Some tumours do not cause symptoms until they are very large. Other tumours have symptoms that develop slowly.

Symptoms depend on the tumour’s size, location, how far it has spread, and whether there is brain swelling. The most common symptoms are:

  • Changes in the person’s mental function
  • Headaches
  • Seizures (especially in older adults)
  • Weakness in one part of the body

Headaches caused by brain tumours may:

  • Be worse when the person wakes up in the morning, and clear up in a few hours
  • Occur during sleep
  • Occur with vomiting, confusion, double vision, weakness, or numbness
  • Get worse with coughing or exercise, or with a change in body position

Other symptoms can include:

  • Change in alertness (including sleepiness, unconsciousness, and coma)
  • Changes in hearing, taste, or smell
  • Changes that affect touch and the ability to feel pain, pressure, different temperatures, or other stimuli
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty writing or reading
  • Dizziness or abnormal sensation of movement (vertigo)
  • Eye problems such as eyelid drooping, pupils of different sizes, uncontrollable eye movement, vision difficulties (including decreased vision, double vision, or total loss of vision)
  • Hand tremor
  • Lack of control over the bladder or bowels
  • Loss of balance or coordination, clumsiness, trouble walking
  • Muscle weakness in the face, arm, or leg (usually on just one side)
  • Numbness or tingling on one side of the body
  • Personality, mood, behaviour, or emotional changes
  • Trouble speaking or understanding others who are speaking

Other symptoms that may occur with a pituitary tumour:

  • Abnormal nipple discharge
  • Absent menstruation (periods)
  • Breast development in men
  • Enlarged hands, feet
  • Excessive body hair
  • Facial changes
  • Low blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Sensitivity to heat or cold

Exams and Tests

The following tests may confirm the presence of a brain tumour and find its location:

  • CT scan of the head
  • EEG (to measure the electrical activity of the brain)
  • Examination of tissue removed from the tumour during surgery or CT-guided biopsy (may confirm the type of tumour)
  • Examination of the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) (may show cancerous cells)
  • MRI of the head



Treatment can involve surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Brain tumours are best treated by a team that includes:

  • Neuro-oncologist
  • Neurosurgeon
  • Medical oncologist
  • Radiation oncologist
  • Other health care providers, such as neurologists and social workers

Early treatment often improves the chance of a good outcome. Treatment depends on the size and type of tumour and your general health. Goals of treatment may be to cure the tumour, relieve symptoms, and improve brain function or comfort.

Surgery is often needed for most primary brain tumours. Some tumours may be completely removed. Those that are deep inside the brain or that enter brain tissue may be debulked instead of removed. Debulking is a procedure to reduce the tumor’s size.

Tumours can be hard to remove completely by surgery alone. This is because the tumor invades surrounding brain tissue much like roots from a plant spread through soil. When the tumour cannot be removed, surgery may still help reduce pressure and relieve symptoms.

Radiation therapy is used for certain tumours.

Chemotherapy may be used with surgery or radiation treatment.

Other medicines used to treat primary brain tumours in children may include:

  • Medicines to reduce brain swelling and pressure
  • Anticonvulsants to reduce seizures
  • Pain medicines

Comfort measures, safety measures, physical therapy, and occupational therapy may be needed to improve quality of life. Counseling, support groups, and similar measures can help people cope with the disorder.

You may consider enrolling in a clinical trial after talking with your treatment team.

Possible Complications

Complications that may result from brain tumours include:

  • Brain herniation (often fatal)
  • Loss of ability to interact or function
  • Permanent, worsening, and severe loss of brain function
  • Return of tumour growth
  • Side effects of medicines, including chemotherapy
  • Side effects of radiation treatments

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you develop any new, persistent headaches or other symptoms of a brain tumour.

Call your provider or go to the emergency room if you start having seizures, or suddenly develop stupor (reduced alertness), vision changes, or speech changes.

ReferencesDorsey JF, Hollander AB, Alonso-Basanta M, et al. Cancer of the central nervous system. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 66.

Michaud DS. Epidemiology of brain tumors. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 71.

National Cancer Institute website. Adult central nervous system tumors treatment (PDQ) – health professional version. Updated January 31, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network website. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines): central nervous system cancers. Version 1.2015. Updated August 18, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

DISCLAIMER The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of any other sites. Content provided by A.D.A.M and is prepared for the United States of America. Recommended treatments may not be applicable, available, or permissible in Canada or other jurisdictions. A.D.A.M. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission ( URAC’s accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (