Brainstem Glioma

Brainstem glioma is a disease in which benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the brainstem.

The brainstem is the part of the brain connected to the spinal cord. It is located in the lowest part of the brain, just above the back of the neck. The brainstem is the part of the brain that controls breathing, heart rate, and nerves and muscles used in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, and eating. Most childhood brainstem gliomas are pontine gliomas, which form in a part of the brainstem called the pons. Brain tumors are the third most common type of cancer in children.

Benign brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from functioning the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can cause symptoms and need treatment.

The cause of most childhood brain tumors is unknown.

The symptoms of childhood brainstem glioma vary and often depend on the child’s age and where the tumor is located.

The following symptoms and others may be caused by a brainstem glioma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with a doctor if your child has any of the following problems:
    •    Loss of balance and trouble walking.
    •    Vision and hearing problems.
    •    Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting.
    •    Nausea and vomiting.
    •    Unusual sleepiness or change in energy level.

Tests such as CT and MRI scans examine the brain and are used to detect childhood brainstem glioma.

Some childhood brainstem gliomas are diagnosed and removed in surgery.

If the tumor has not spread widely within the brainstem or has not been diagnosed by MRI, a biopsy may be done by removing part of the skull and using a needle to obtain a sample of the brain tissue. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor will remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis and treatment options depend on:

    The type of brainstem glioma.
    Where the tumor is found in the brain and if it has spread within the brainstem.
    Whether or not the child has a condition called neurofibromatosis type 1.
    Whether the tumor has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).