Synonym: Spinal Cord Tumors
What are Brain and Spinal Tumors ?
Brain and spinal cord tumors are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the skull or the bony spinal column, which are the primary components of the central nervous system (CNS). Benign tumors are noncancerous, and malignant tumors are cancerous. The CNS is housed within rigid, bony quarters (i.e., the skull and spinal column), so any abnormal growth, whether benign or malignant, can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function. Tumors that originate in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumors. Most primary tumors are caused by out-of-control growth among cells that surround and support neurons. In a small number of individuals, primary tumors may result from specific genetic disease (e.g., neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis) or from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. The cause of most primary tumors remains a mystery. They are not contagious and, at this time, not preventable. Symptoms of brain tumors include headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting, vision or hearing problems, behavioral and cognitive problems, motor problems, and balance problems. Spinal cord tumor symptoms include pain, sensory changes, and motor problems. The first test to diagnose brain and spinal column tumors is a neurological examination. Special imaging techniques (computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography) are also employed. Laboratory tests include the EEG and the spinal tap. A biopsy, a surgical procedure in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, helps doctors diagnose the type of tumor.
Is there any treatment?
The three most commonly used treatments are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Doctors also may prescribe steroids to reduce the swelling inside the CNS.
What is the prognosis?
Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors generally develop slowly and worsen over time unless they are treated. The tumor may be classified as benign or malignant and given a numbered score that reflects how malignant it is. This score can help doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome, or prognosis, for the patient.
What research is being done?
Scientists continue to investigate ways to better understand, diagnose, and treat CNS tumors. Experimental treatment options may include new drugs, gene therapy, surgery, radiation, biologic immuno-agents that enhance the body’s overall immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells, and a combination of therapies. Of particular interest to scientists is the development of tailored therapeutics–involving a combination of targeted agents that use different molecules to reduce tumor gene activity and suppress uncontrolled growth by killing or reducing the production of tumor cells–to treat tumors based on their genetic makeup. Researchers continue to search for additional clinical biomarkers (molecules or other substances in the blood or tissue that can be used to diagnose or monitor a particular disorder) of CNS tumors. Other researchers are testing different drugs and molecules to see if they can modulate the normal activity of the blood-brain barrier and better target tumor cells and associated blood vessels. Also under investigation are ways to help the body respond to improved drug delivery or other cancer treatments.