Understanding Astrocytoma of the Brain or Spine

Profile of Neurosurgeon Dr. Raab, an expert in astrocytomas of the spine or brain

An astrocytoma is a type of central nervous system (CNS) neuronal tissue tumor. They can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). They are more likely to develop in the brain but can grow on the spinal cord as well. Astrocytomas originate in a neuronal cell type called a glial cell. A tumor that originates in a glial cell is referred to as a glioma. There are multiple types of glioma tumors.

Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO) is New Jersey’s most comprehensive neurological care center including treatment for the brain and spine. Learn more from CNSO’s neurosurgeons about this kind of tumor, its symptoms, and how it is treated.

What Are the Symptoms of Astrocytoma?

Astrocytomas can develop in different parts of the brain and spine, although they are most commonly found in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. Symptoms may vary depending on the location of the tumor, but can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings or personality changes
  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Muscle weakness or motor skills problem

If the tumor is benign and slow-growing, it may not cause any noticeable symptoms.

Risk Factors for Astrocytoma

While it is not clear what causes astrocytoma of the brain or spine, there are two identified risk factors: radiation exposure and genetics. Patients who have had radiation therapy for other forms of cancer have an increased risk of developing astrocytoma. Additionally, patients who have the following genetic conditions may be more likely to have an astrocytoma:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1)
  • Nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome (NBCCS)
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Turcot syndrome

Age also may be a risk factor, as gliomas are more common in adults in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

How Is Astrocytoma Diagnosed?

Accurate diagnosis is crucial because the symptoms of astrocytoma can be associated with many other conditions. To diagnose whether a patient may have a brain tumor, a provider will begin by reviewing the patient’s symptoms and medical history. They will then perform a complete physical exam that includes neurological testing. This assesses the patient’s vision, hearing, and other abilities that can be affected by a brain tumor.

The patient then will undergo imaging tests. Typically, an MRI is used to check for brain tumors, but in some cases, a CT scan or PET scan will be performed. While a brain or spine tumor can be visualized on these tests, the type of brain tumor can be estimated. To confirm the type of brain tumor, a biopsy often will be needed. The biopsy provides the specificity to determine the tumor type, grade, and whether it is malignant or benign. Astrocytomas are graded on a scale of I to IV. The higher the grade, the more advanced and aggressive the tumor is.

What Are the Treatment Options for Astrocytoma?

If the tumor is in a part of the brain that can be accessed surgically, the treatment approach usually is to resect as much of the tumor as possible. Depending on the location of the tumor, a neurosurgeon may perform a craniotomy or endoscopic brain surgery. To minimize risk, they typically will use real-time MRI or imaging called neuronavigation. They also may use contrast dye to help visualize the tumor.

After surgery is complete, the patient will need to stay in the hospital for several days. Rehabilitation will begin during their hospital stay and continue after they have been discharged. This may include occupational therapy or physical therapy. It can take several months to recover fully from brain tumor surgery.

If the tumor cannot be completely removed through brain or spine surgery or is likely to grow back, a patient may have a course of radiation therapy. This treatment uses powerful radiation beams to damage tumor cell DNA, which can shrink or eradicate tumors. Often, a patient will receive radiation treatments several days a week over six weeks. Radiation is painless, but there are minor side effects, such as fatigue, changes in the skin, and hair loss. Side effects tend to resolve a few months after treatment is complete. Additional treatment methods may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and tumor-treating fields (TTF) therapy.

After undergoing treatment for astrocytoma, a patient will have follow-up appointments to monitor their brain and spine and check for tumor recurrence. Most patients will have at least one MRI scan per year.

Learn More About Brain Tumor Treatment

At Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO), patients will find a comprehensive team of specialists with extensive experience in spinal cord, brain, or spine astrocytoma treatment. The team at CNSO takes a compassionate approach throughout the patient journey, using their expertise to determine the best course of treatment for each patient. The comprehensive medical staff at CNSO includes neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists. CNSO has multiple convenient locations across northern New Jersey, as well as telemedicine services. For more information or to request an appointment, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics