Astrocytomas are primary malignant brain tumors which grow at a more aggressive and rapid pace than benign tumors. They are the most common of the glioma, a tumor that receives its unique name as it derives from glial cells. Gliomas typically do not spread but do start in the brain and spine and account for nearly half of all brain and nervous system tumors. Astrocytomas develop from the supportive, “glue-like” tissues of the brain called astrocytes (star shaped glial cells) located in the cerebrum. It is important to note, however, that they are not limited to this area. They are less common in the spinal cord and more common in adults, particularly middle-aged men. Astrocytomas which develop in the base of the brain are seen more often in young adults and account for the majority of brain tumors found in children.
Symptoms Associated with the Condition
Warning signs of an astrocytoma tend to differ based on the location of the tumor within the brain. Typical symptoms may include:
- Chronic headaches
- Blurred or double vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Suppression or loss of appetite
- Variations in mood or personality
- Altered thinking and learning abilities
- Memory loss
- Speech problems
Early stage indications in children include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in coordination
The exact cause of an astrocytoma, like many tumors, is unknown.
Grading and Classification of Astrocytomas
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a grading system for astrocytomas which ranges from low to high grade on four different scales depending on the visual characteristics of the cells (normal or abnormal). Those in the low grade account for 10% of astrocytomas and are typically localized with slow growth. Lower grade astrocytomas are commonly found in children whereas higher grade tumors are associated with adults. They are more common and grow at an aggressive rate which requires a different course of treatment than lower grade tumors.
Available Treatment Options
If a tumor is found after the use of a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a biopsy will be performed. A portion of the tumor is removed during a biopsy and sent to a neuropathologist for grading and examination. This step will aid in determining the severity of the tumor and subsequent treatment options.
Surgery – The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible without harming the surrounding brain tissue or altering neurological functions such as speech and motor skills. Surgery on high grade astrocytomas will not completely remove the tumor since they have a tendency to embed tentacle-like structures into surrounding brain tissue. Neurosurgeons can still open the skull through craniotomy to access the tumor site in efforts to reduce and control the size of the astrocytoma.
Radiation – Radiation can be used to selectively target and destroy tumor cells while leaving surrounding brain tissue undamaged. Standard beam radiation treatments are administered in doses or fractions over multiple sessions and may aid in longer survival rates and improved outcomes for patients.
Cyberknife and Radiosurgery – The revolutionary Cyberknife system uses a combination of robotics and image guidance technology to deliver doses of radiation to tumors beyond the reach of other radiosurgery systems. In radiosurgery, computerized calculations are made to send out precise doses of radiation to the tumor site. This allows for less radiation exposure to the rest of the brain. The use of Cyberknife allows for accurate, painless and non-invasive treatment as an alternative method to neurosurgery.
Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy uses special drugs to help kill tumor cells and has proven to increase survival rates in 20% of patients. This form of treatment is often used on young children as a substitute for radiation as the latter has been known to negatively affect the progress of a developing brain.
Astrocytomas and other forms of brain tumors require immediate, professional and expert attention. If you are experiencing symptoms or have questions regarding cranial surgery, call a neurosurgeon in New Jersey at 908-219-9673 to schedule a consultation.