Astrocytoma - Common CNS Tumor 

Introduction
Astrocytoma is a common type of brain tumor.  There are different types and severities of astrocytomas.  They may or may not be cancerous.  Astrocytomas may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.

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Anatomy
Your brain is located inside of your skull.  It is the control center of your body.  Your brain controls the way you think, behave, feel, and move your body.  Your brain communicates with the nerves in your body for functions you can control, such as talking or moving your arms and legs.  Your brain also controls the life-sustaining functions that happen automatically, including your heartbeat, body temperature, blood pressure, and body metabolism.
 
Your brain contains millions of cells.  Astrocytes are star-shaped brain cells.  Astrocytes are a type of glial cell.  Glial cells provide support and insulation between nerve cells in the brain.  Astrocytomas are brain tumors that develop from astrocytes.

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Causes
Astrocytomas are one of the most common types of brain tumors.  Brain tumors are a rare condition that results when cells grow abnormally and form a mass.  The exact cause of astrocytoma is unknown.  There are several types of astrocytomas.  One type of astrocytoma has been identified as having a genetic cause.  Researchers suspect that some types of astrocytomas may result from chemicals, such as pesticides, formaldehyde, and solvents that affect the development of a baby’s brain during pregnancy or infancy. 
 
Astrocytomas may or may not contain cancer cells.  Benign brain tumors are not cancerous, but they may be life threatening if they are located in a vital area of the brain.  Malignant brain tumors are cancerous and life threatening.  Malignant brain tumors are usually fast growing and can spread to other parts of the body.  Astrocytomas rarely spread outside of the brain and spinal cord.
 
Astrocytomas occur slightly more often in men than in women.  They are slightly more common in Caucasians.  Astrocytomas can develop in both children and adults.  The types of astrocytomas that develop in children tend to have a better prognosis.

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Symptoms
There are different types of astrocytomas, which may cause a variety of symptoms.  Astrocytomas increase the pressure in the brain (intracranial pressure), which causes headaches, nausea, and vomiting.  Other symptoms experienced may depend on the type and location of the tumor.  You may experience seizures, neck pain, or dizziness.  You may lose your appetite.  You may not be able to think or remember things as well as you did before.  You may be confused.  Your behavior, moods, and personality may change.  Your ability to see, smell, breathe, swallow, hear, or talk may change.  Problems moving your body and walking may occur.  You may feel tired or weak.
 
In young children and infants, the tumor may cause the skull to become larger.  An eye exam may reveal swelling near the blind spot located in the back of the eye.  Children may experience seizures with certain types of astrocytomas.

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Diagnosis
A doctor can diagnose astrocytoma by reviewing your medical history and conducting a physical examination, neurological examination, and some tests.  Your blood, urine, vision, or hearing may be tested.  An electroencephalogram (EEG) may be used to measure your brain wave activity.  Imaging scans may be used to detect a tumor in the brain. 
 
Common imaging tests include computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.  CT and MRI show the structures in the brain and abnormalities, such as tumors.  They can show the size and location of brain tumors.  Angiograms depict the blood flow in the brain and in tumors.  Angiograms are important for surgical planning.  Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to determine more information about brain cell functioning.
 
A biopsy may be used to determine the exact type of tumor and if cancer cells are present.  A biopsy is a procedure that obtains tissue or fluid from the brain or spinal cord for examination.  A stereotactic biopsy uses imaging and computers to create a visual guide for a surgeon to precisely remove tumor tissue with a needle after a small opening is created in the skull.
 
If you have an astrocytoma, your doctor will assign your tumor a grade based on the results of all of your tests.  Grading describes the type of tumor and its characteristics.  Tumors with higher grades are more serious.  Grading is helpful for treatment planning and recovery prediction.  There is more than one type of grading system for brain tumors. 

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Treatment
Treatment for astrocytoma depends on many factors including the type of tumor, tumor grade, tumor location, and the age and general health of the individual.

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Am I at Risk

Because the exact cause of astrocytoma is unknown, researchers are unable to state definite risk factors at this time.  One rare type of astrocytoma called subependymal giant cell astrocytoma is inherited and associated with another disorder.  If your family members have this type of astrocytoma, your risk is increased for developing it.

Researchers suspect that exposure to certain chemicals may increase the risk of astrocytoma in developing babies during pregnancy or infancy.  Such chemicals include pesticides, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, phenols, acrylonitrile, N-nitrosos compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, lubricating fluids, and organic solvents.  People may be exposed to these chemicals at certain jobs.

 

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Complications
Astrocytomas may result in neurological impairment, disability, and seizures.  Higher grade astrocytomas can spread throughout the brain and spinal cord, leading to death.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit www.iHealthSpot.com.