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NINDS Brain and Spinal Tumors Information Page

Synonym(s):   Spinal Cord Tumors
Condensed from Brain and Spinal Tumors: Hope Through Research

Table of Contents (click to jump to sections)

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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.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Brain and Spinal Tumors Clinical Trials


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National Cancer Institute (NCI)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
6116 Executive Boulevard, Ste. 3036A, MSC 8322
Bethesda, MD   20892-8322
Tel: 800-4-CANCER (422-6237) 800-332-8615 (TTY)

American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA)
8550 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Suite 550
Chicago, IL   60631
Tel: 773-577-8750 800-886-2282
Fax: 847-827-9918

Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation
20312 Watkins Meadow Drive
Germantown, MD   20876
Tel: 877-217-4166 301-515-2900

Children's Brain Tumor Foundation
274 Madison Avenue
Suite 1004
New York, NY   10016
Tel: 212-448-9494 866-CBT-HOPE (228-4673)
Fax: 212-448-1022

National Brain Tumor Society
55 Chapel Street
Suite 200
Newton, MA   02458
Tel: 617-612-6661
Fax: 617-924-9998

Musella Foundation for Brain Tumor Research and Information
1100 Peninsula Blvd.
Hewlett, NY   11557
Tel: 516-295-4740 888-295-4740
Fax: 516-295-2870

American Cancer Society
National Home Office
250 Williams Street, NW
Atlanta, GA   30303-1002
Tel: 800-ACS-2345 (227-2345)

International RadioSurgery Association
2960 Green Street
P.O. Box 5186
Harrisburg, PA   17110
Tel: 717-260-9808
Fax: 717-260-9809

Cushing's Support and Research Foundation
65 East India Row
Suite 22B
Boston, MA   02110-3389
Tel: 617-723-3674
Fax: same as phone

Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation
302 Ridgefield Court
Asheville, NC   28806
Tel: 828-665-6891 800-253-6530
Fax: 828-665-6894

Pituitary Network Association
P.O. Box 1958
Thousand Oaks, CA   91358
Tel: 805-499-9973
Fax: 805-480-0633

Preuss Foundation, Inc. [For Brain Tumor Research]
2223 Avenida de la Playa
Suite 220
La Jolla, CA   92037
Tel: 858-454-0200
Fax: 858-454-4449

Nevus Outreach, Inc
600 SE Delaware Ave
Suite 200
Bartlesville, OK   74
Tel: 877-426-3887 918-331-0595
Fax: 281-417-4020

Hope for Hypothalamic Hamartomas (Hope for HH)
P. O. Box 721
Waddell, AZ   85355

Related NINDS Publications and Information
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Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last updated February 9, 2015