What are the different types of brain tumours?

There are over 100 different types of tumour that can develop in the brain or central nervous system. Open a glossary item

Brain tumours can start in any part of the brain or spinal cord (primary brain tumours). Or cancer can spread to the brain or spinal cord from somewhere else in the body. This is known as a secondary brain tumour or brain metastases.

This page is about the different types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours in adults.

How do doctors group (classify) brain tumours?

Doctors use a system for classifying brain tumours into groups and types. This system is regularly updated. The latest is the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of 2021.

There are over 100 different types, so we haven't mentioned all of these. Based on the latest WHO classification, we give a simple description of some of the types. 

Understanding the different types and groups of brain tumours can be difficult. You can also speak to your doctor or nurse specialist if you want more information about your diagnosis.

Doctors look at several factors to group (classify) the different types of brain tumours. These include:

The type of cell they develop from

The brain and the spinal cord are made up of different types of cells and tissues.

Brain tumours are usually named after the cell or tissue they started in. For example, ependymoma tumours start in cells called ependymal cells.

The area of the brain they are growing in

Brain tumours can start anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.

Some tumours are grouped as a 'type' depending on where they have started in the brain. For example, pineal region brain tumours start in the pineal gland. 

The genetic changes found in the tumour

Your doctor looks to see if there are certain gene changes in the cells of some types of brain tumours. These tests are also called biomarker or molecular studies. 

The results of these tests help the doctors work out your type and grade of brain tumour. It also helps them work out your treatment options and how likely it is that the tumour will respond to treatment.

Whether it mostly develops in children or adults

The most common type of brain tumour is a glioma.

Some types of glioma are more common in adults. Doctors group these as adult type gliomas. And some gliomas are more common in children. So doctors group these as child (paediatric) type gliomas.

This helps doctors because paediatric type gliomas can look and behave differently to adult type gliomas. So, they often need different treatments.

The grade of the tumour

Brain tumours are grouped according to how quickly they are likely to grow. These are called grades. 

The grade depends on how the cells look. Generally, the more normal the cells look, the lower the grade. The more abnormal the cells look, the higher the grade. Grade also depends on genes and proteins in the tumour cells. 

Understanding your brain tumour diagnosis

Doctors in the laboratory measure the level of certain biomarkers Open a glossary item in your tumour cells. There are many different biomarkers. Here is a list of some of the biomarkers you might see or hear next to the name of your tumour type:

  • BRAF
  • EGFR
  • IDH1 and IDH2
  • 1p/19q
  • ATRX
  • MGMT
  • H3K27me3
  • TERT promoter
  • NF1 and NF2

If your biomarker is not on the list above, please speak to your doctor for more information.

You might hear or read different terms to describe the biomarkers:

  • mutant - this means there are permanent changes in the gene
  • wildtype - this means the doctors haven’t seen any changes in the gene
  • amplified  – this means there is an increase in the number of copies of the gene
  • deleted or co-deleted – this means that part of a chromosome is missing (deleted)
  • fusion - this means that a gene has been joined (fused) with another gene 

Types of brain and spinal tumours

Below is a list of some of the more common types of brain tumours in adults. You can click the links for more detailed information about the different types. The most common type in adults is a glioma. 


Gliomas are cancerous (malignant) brain tumours that start in glial cells. These are the supporting cells of the brain and the spinal cord. There are 3 different types of gliomas:

  • astrocytoma
  • glioblastoma
  • oligodendroglioma

These are described below in more detail.


Astrocytoma is the most common type of glioma. It develops from a type of glial cell called an astrocyte. There are different types of astrocytoma.

The way doctors describe and group astrocytomas has changed. All astrocytomas are now called astrocytoma, IDH mutant.

There are 3 grades of astrocytoma. These are:

  • grade 2 (diffuse)
  • grade 3 (anaplastic)
  • grade 4


Glioblastoma is a type of fast growing (high grade) glioma. In the past it was also called glioblastoma multiforme or GBM.  Doctors have changed how they name glioblastoma. You might now hear it described as glioblastoma, IDH wildtype.


Oligodendrogliomas are a rare type of glioma. They develop from glial cells called oligodendrocytes. Doctors put them into groups based on how quickly they are likely to grow. This is called the grade. They can be low grade (slow growing) or high grade (fast growing).

You might hear your tumour described as oligodendroglioma, IDH mutant, and 1p/19q co-deleted.


Ependymomas usually start from ependymal cells. These cells line the fluid filled areas of the brain (ventricles) and the spinal cord.

This is a rare type of brain tumour in adults. There are different types of ependymoma. Your doctor will tell you more about your type.


Craniopharyngiomas are benign brain tumours. This means they are not cancerous (non malignant).

They usually grow near the base of the brain, just above the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland makes hormones that control important body functions. So these tumours can cause symptoms because of changes in the how the pituitary gland works. 

Embryonal tumours

Embryonal tumours develop from cells that are left over from the early stages of our development. 

There are different types of embryonal tumours. The most common type is medulloblastoma which mainly affects children.


Haemangioblastomas are rare benign brain tumours. This means they are not cancer (non malignant). They start in the cells that line the blood vessels in the brain, spinal cord and brain stem. They usually grow slowly over some years.

Lymphoma of the brain or spinal cord (CNS lymphoma)

This is a rare type of lymphoma. Lymphoma Open a glossary item is a cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. 

Primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma means lymphoma develops in the brain or the spinal cord. It is also called primary cerebral lymphoma. 

The most common type of primary CNS lymphoma is diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.


Meningiomas are tumours that start in the tissue layers covering the brain and spinal cord. This tissue is called the meninges. Most meningiomas are not cancerous (benign).

There are 3 grades of meningiomas:

  • grade 1
  • grade 2
  • grade 3

Pineal region tumours

Pineal region tumours are rare brain tumours. They start in the pineal gland or the tissues around it. The pineal gland is in the middle of the brain, just behind the brain stem. It makes the hormone melatonin that controls sleep.

There are many types of tumours that can start in the pineal region. The 2 main types are:

  • germ cell tumours
  • tumours that start in the pineal gland (pineal gland tumours)

Pituitary tumours

These tumours start in the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland makes and releases hormones into the bloodstream. Most pituitary tumours are not cancerous (benign).

Benign pituitary gland tumours are also called pituitary adenomas.

Vestibular Schwannoma (acoustic neuroma)

Vestibular schwannomas are also called acoustic neuromas. They are non cancerous (benign) brain tumours that start in the nerve that connects the brain to the ear.

Vestibular schwannomas start in Schwann cells. These are fatty cells on the outside of nerves.  They usually start on the vestibulocochlear nerve. This nerve connects the brain to the ear. It controls hearing and balance.

Spinal cord tumours

Tumours that start in the spinal cord (primary spinal cord tumours) are rare. There are different types of primary spinal cord tumours. The most common types are meningiomas, tumours of the spinal nerves and ependymomas.


Gliosarcomas are a rare type of fast growing (high grade), cancerous glioma. They are similar to glioblastomas, but less common.

They develop from glial cells called astrocytes. But they also share some characteristics with sarcomas Open a glossary item. They grow in the brain but can also develop in the spinal cord.

Doctors describe gliosarcomas as either primary or secondary:

  • primary gliosarcoma - doctors diagnose this at your first surgery or biopsy if you haven't had a glioblastoma in the past
  • secondary gliosarcoma - doctors diagnose this if you develop a gliosarcoma and you have had treatment for glioblastoma in the past

Doctors usually treat gliosarcoma in a similar way to glioblastomas.

  • The 2021 WHO Classification of Tumours of the Central Nervous System: a summary
    D Louis and others
    Neuro Oncology, 2021 Volume 23, Issue 8, Pages 1231-1251

  • Grading of adult diffuse gliomas according to the 2021 WHO Classification of Tumors of the Central Nervous System
    T Komori
    Laboratory Investigation, 2022 Volume 102, Pages 126 – 133

  • The 2021 WHO Classification of Tumors of the Central Nervous System: clinical implications
    P Wen and R Packer
    Neuro Oncology, 2021 Volume 23, Issue 8, Pages 1215–1217

Last reviewed: 
08 Jun 2023
Next review due: 
08 Jun 2026

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