Dr. Fabiano looking at a scan of the brain and spine.

Types of Brain Tumors and Disorders

Metastatic brain tumors

Metastatic — or secondary — brain tumors begin as cancer in another part of the body (for example, the breast or lung). Some of the cancer cells may be carried to the brain through the bloodstream or may spread from nearby tissue. The site where the cancer cells began is referred to as the primary cancer.

There are more than 120 types of primary brain tumors and abnormalities, and Roswell Park has the experts and resources to diagnose them accurately and treat them effectively. Brain tumors are among the most common types of cancer that occur in children. Learn more about pediatric cancers.

What are gliomas?

Glioma is any tumor that arises from the glial cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain. Gliomas are also known as primary brain tumors. While not always aggressive, some gliomas can invade surrounding brain tissue and are challenging to remove completely.

  • Astrocytoma is the most common type of glioma. This tumor begins in astrocytes, the star-shaped cells in the cerebrum, cerebellum or brainstem. Astrocytomas do not usually spread outside the brain or affect other organs. There are a number of different types and grades of astrocytoma.
  • Glioblastoma is the most aggressive type of glioma occurring mostly in adults between 45-70 years old. It is the most common primary brain tumor and is also the most common malignant brain tumor in adults. It grows rapidly and is made up of cells that look very abnormal.
  • Ependymoma begins in the ependymal cells that line the brain passageways known as ventricles where cerebrospinal fluid is produced and circulated.
  • Oligodendroglioma begins in oligodendrocytes, one of the types of cells that make up the supportive, or glial, tissue of the brain.

What are skull base tumors?

The base of your skull involves several bones that form the “floor” for the brain and separate the brain from the eyes, ears, sinuses and other parts of the head. Skull base tumors can be either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). These tumors can grow close to critical blood vessels, nerves and the brainstem. The most common types of skull base tumors include:

  • Acoustic neuroma is a slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. Although it’s not cancer, if left untreated, it can grow and damage vital nerves or compress the brainstem and cerebellum.
  • Meningiomas begin in the meninges, the membrane layers surrounding the central nervous system. About one-third of all primary brain tumors are meningiomas, which are usually benign.
  • Chordoma is a rare tumor that forms most commonly at the base of the skull or at the bottom of the spine and can invade nearby tissues. These tumors are generally slow growing, but after treatment they can come back in the area where they first began or may spread to other parts of the body.

What are pituitary tumors?

Pituitary tumors are also considered a type of skull base tumor, and involve the pituitary gland, the small bean-shaped gland that produces hormones and influences nearly every body system, regulating growth, blood pressure and reproduction.

  • Adenoma. Almost all pituitary tumors are pituitary adenomas. Because they don't spread to other parts of the body, these tumors are considered benign, but they can still cause significant health problems. It can cause abnormal secretion of hormones or impair normal hormone function or press on the optic nerves causing severe visual problems.
  • Pituitary carcinoma is a malignant pituitary tumor that is very rare.
  • Craniopharyngioma is a tumor that begins in small nests of cells near the pituitary stalk, which connects the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that regulates body temperature and controls appetite and other important functions.

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Other brain tumor types

  • Choroid plexus tumors. These tumors affect mostly children. They begin in the choroid plexus, a network of brain cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Hemangioblastoma. This rare tumor most commonly located in the cerebellum (balance control region) is made up of many small blood vessels and often a fluid-filled cyst.
  • Primary central nervous system lymphoma (PCNSL). This condition occurs mostly in elderly people and can look something like glioblastoma. It can also occur in younger people with severely compromised or weakened immune systems (for example, AIDS patients or those with a kidney transplant).
  • Medulloblastoma is a fast-growing cancer that begins in embryonal or immature cells at the earliest stage of their development. Most medulloblastomas occur in children, but about one-third are diagnosed in adults between the ages of 20-44.

What are peripheral nerve tumors?

  • Neurofibromas begin in the nerve sheath, the tissue that surrounds and protects the peripheral nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord. Neurofibromas most commonly occur in people with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1. Roswell Park’s dedicated Neurofibromatosis Clinic provides streamlined comprehensive care and monitoring for adults with any form of neurofibromatosis.
  • Schwannoma is a slow-growing tumor of a cranial nerve — a nerve that branches out directly from the brain. Although they can occur anywhere in the body, the most common location of these tumors is the 8th cranial nerve, which sends messages from the inner ear to the brain to manage sound and balance. These tumors are known as acoustic neuromas (relating to sound) or vestibular schwannomas (related to balance). Common symptoms are one-sided hearing loss and buzzing or ringing in the affected ear.

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Brain disorders we treat

Roswell Park’s team is a regional source for expert care for several types of non-tumor related brain disorders, including:

  • Arteriovenous malformation. A tangle of abnormal connections between the veins and arteries in the brain is known as an arteriovenous malformation. Typically, it is present from birth, but may be diagnosed if it causes bleeding in the brain.
  • Hydrocephalus. This condition occurs when cerebrospinal fluid builds up due to the blockage of normal flow patterns in the brain. This is often treated by either installing a shunt (drainage tube) or by a procedure called endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV).
  • Lipoma. This rare genetic brain condition develops in the corpus callosum — a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers beneath the cortex of the brain. Lipomas seldom cause symptoms and do not need to be treated.
  • Trigeminal neuralgia (TN). This nerve disorder causes a stabbing or electric-shock-like pain on one side of the forehead, cheek or jaw. Most often it is due to a blood vessel pressing on the 5th cranial (trigeminal) nerve.

How are brain tumors diagnosed?

Is there a hereditary link?

People with certain rare genetic disorders may be at risk for some brain tumors. These genetic conditions include:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome and neurofibromatosis type 1 increase the risk of glioma.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease increases the risk of hemangioblastoma.
  • Tuberous sclerosis increases the risk of astrocytoma.
  • Neurofibromatosis type 2 increases the risk of acoustic neuroma and meningioma.

If you have been told you have one of these disorders, you may want to consider genetic counseling and testing. Roswell Park’s formally trained genetics team specializes exclusively in assessing inherited cancer risk and will help you determine whether genetic screening may benefit you.

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