What Is It?

An astrocytoma is a type of brain tumor which arises from cells within the brain itself. These cells, called astrocytes, are part of the family of glial cells. Glial cells can be thought of as "helper" cells in the brain. They help keep the internal environment steady so that the nerve cells can function properly. Therefore, these tumors are considered a form of glioma.

Astrocytes occur throughout the brain and spinal cord so these tumors can arise in almost any part of the central nervous system. Generally, there is no obvious cause for the tumor in any given patient, although a small number of these tumors arise in some patients with specific familial neurological conditions such as neurofibromatosis.

They vary considerably from one to the next. In addition to varying in location, the tumors can have various levels of aggressiveness. They vary from more benign ("low grade") to more malignant ("high grade"). Like other gliomas, they are generally graded on a 4-point scale (I, II, III, or IV), with grade I being the most benign and grade IV being the most malignant. Grade IV astrocytomas are also known as glioblastoma multiforme.

What Types of Symptoms Are Typical?

As with most brain tumors, symptoms can vary widely depending on the tumor grade, its size and location. The tumor can cause dysfunction of surrounding or adjacent brain, so neurological symptoms can occur and depend on where the tumor is located. This varies significantly from patient to patient. Symptoms such as weakness or numbness, visual changes, memory loss and others are not uncommon.

Any mass inside the head can increase the pressure and lead to headaches as well as nausea and vomiting, which are all common symptoms of brain tumors. New onset of seizures in a person who does not previously have a history of a seizure disorder is another common way that these tumors present.

How Is The Diagnosis Typically Made?

In addition to a thorough neurological examination, generally an imaging study, such as a CT scan or MRI scan with contrast dye, is ordered to visualize the tumor. This helps to confirm the presence of the tumor, determine its size and location and give some clues as to the type of tumor.

As with most tumors, some tissue of the tumor is required to make the ultimate diagnosis and confirm that it is an astrocytoma. This allows the pathologist to study the tissue and make a definitive diagnosis and to grade the tumor.

What Are Some Common Treatments?

Treatments can vary considerably but are generally guided by the specifics of each tumor, including its grade, its size and its location. Common treatments include surgery to remove part or all of the tumor, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, but these vary widely depending on the specific tumor type and characteristics. These treatment decisions should be made on a case by case basis with the patient's physician and clinical team.

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Important Note: This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.

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