Different types of brain tumours in children

Tumours that start in the brain are called primary brain tumours. Tumours can start in any part of the brain or spinal cord. 

Cancer that has spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body is called secondary brain cancer or brain metastases. Secondary brain tumours are much less common in children than adults.

How many types of brain tumours are there?

There are over 130 different types of tumour which can develop in the brain or central nervous system. They are usually named after the type of cell they develop from. You might also hear them named after the area of the brain they are growing in.

Parts of the brain

Your brain controls your body by sending electrical messages along nerve fibres. The fibres run out of the brain and join together to make your spinal cord. Together your brain and spinal cord make your central nervous system (CNS).

The main areas of the brain include:

  • the cerebrum (forebrain)
  • the brain stem
  • the cerebellum
Diagram showing the main parts of the brain

What are the most common types of brain tumours in children?

The most common groups of brain tumours in children are:

  • astrocytoma (low and high grade gliomas)
  • medulloblastoma
  • ependymoma
  • germ cell tumours
  • choroid plexus tumours

Astrocytoma

Astrocytomas are the most common type of brain and spinal cord tumour in children. They are a type of brain tumour called a glioma. Over 4 out of 10 (over 40%) brain and spinal cord tumours in children are astrocytomas. They can develop anywhere in the brain.

Most astrocytomas in children are low grade. This means the tumour cells look similar to normal cells, the tumours grow fairly slowly and are less likely to spread. Less commonly the astrocytoma is high grade. These tumours tend to grow more quickly and are more likely to spread to other areas of the body. 

Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG)

Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is a type of diffuse midline glioma. You might also hear this type of tumour called a brainstem glioma.

These tumours develop in a part of the brainstem called the pons. The pons controls important functions for our body that we don’t usually think about, such as:

  • breathing
  • swallowing
  • heartbeat and blood pressure

The nerves controlling eye movement are also in the brain stem. The nerves controlling lower limbs and balance thread through this area.

Diagram showing the brain stem which includes the medulla oblongata, the pons and the midbrain

DIPG tumours are high grade and grow quickly. This means symptoms develop quickly. 

Surgery is not usually possible for DIPG tumours. This is because the tumour is in such a delicate and important area of the brain. Doctors usually use radiotherapy to treat DIPG tumours. Researchers are looking into how they can improve the diagnosis and treatment of children with DIPG.

A clinical trial is looking at whether having a targeted cancer therapy with radiotherapy is better than radiotherapy on its own for children with DIPG. They are also looking closely at samples of DIPG tumours, to look at the biology of the cells. Researchers hope that this information might improve treatment in the future.

Embryonal tumours in the brain or spine

Embryonal tumours develop from cells left over from early development in the womb. It’s important to know that we don’t know what causes embryonal tumours. It’s not something you, or anyone else, has caused during pregnancy. Normally these cells are harmless. But rarely they can become cancerous.

Medulloblastoma

Medulloblastoma is a type of embryonal tumour. It is the second most common brain tumour in children. It’s the most common malignant (high grade) childhood brain tumour. Medulloblastoma develops at the back of the brain in the cerebellum. This type of tumour often grows quickly and can spread to other areas of the brain and spinal cord.

Until recently, doctors talked about medulloblastoma as a PNET. Research has now shown us that medulloblastoma cells are different from those in other PNET tumours.

PNET

PNET (pronounced pee-net) stands for primitive neuro ectodermal tumour. They are a group of embryonal tumours. Doctors use this term to group these tumours together because the tumour cells look similar under a microscope. They can develop in different parts of the brain.

The main treatments for PNETs are

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy

Ependymomas

Ependymomas usually start from ependymal cells. These cells line the fluid filled areas of the brain (ventricles) and the spinal cord. Their job is to repair any damaged nerve tissue. 

They are most common in young infants, aged up to 5 years. 

Around 30 children are diagnosed with ependymoma every year in the UK.

Craniopharyngioma

Craniopharyngiomas (pronounced cran-ee-oh-fah-rin-gee-oh-mahs) are very rare brain tumours. 

These tumours usually grow near the base of the brain, just above the pituitary gland. They are most often diagnosed in children and teenagers.

Diagram showing the parts of the brain

Craniopharyngiomas do not usually spread, but they develop close to important structures in the brain and can cause problems as they grow. They can cause changes in hormone levels, and problems with eyesight.

Doctors usually treat craniopharyngioma with surgery and, if necessary, radiotherapy.

We have more information about craniopharyngioma, it’s aimed at people of all ages with this type of tumour. Remember to click back to the children’s brain tumour section to learn more about diagnosis, treatment and support for children and families.

Other types of brain and spinal cord tumour in children

Spinal cord tumours

Children might develop a tumour in their spinal cord. These tumours are grouped together because they develop in the spine. Depending on the type of cell it starts in they can be:

  • astrocytomas
  • ependymomas
  • gangliomas

Atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour (ATRT)

These tumours are rare. They usually occur in young infants and tend to be fast growing (high grade).

They can develop in different parts of the brain.

Germ cell tumours

Germ cell tumours are very rare in children and are more common in teenagers and young adults.

Germ cell tumours grow from cells that are left over from the earliest development of the body in the womb. Normally these cells are harmless, but some can start to grow out of control.

Some germ cell tumours make substances that can show in the blood. These are called tumour markers. If your child’s doctor thinks that they have a germ cell tumour, they might have blood tests to look for:

  • alpha fetoprotein (AFP)
  • beta human choriogonadotropin (beta HCG)

Other germ cell tumours don’t make these tumour markers. These tumours are called germinomas.

Treatment for secreting germ cell tumours

The main treatments for germ cell tumours that secrete tumour markers are:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy

Your child might have surgery after chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but this is rare.

Treatment for germinomas

Germinoma’s generally respond well to radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Because of this, doctors are trying to reduce the amount of radiotherapy given to children and young people with germinomas. They hope this will help reduce the long term effects of brain tumour treatment.

Choroid plexus tumours

The choroid plexus is a network of blood vessels and cells. It produces cerebrospinal fluid. 

Doctors treat choroid plexus tumours with:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy

Some children might have chemotherapy.

What next?

We have detailed information about:

  • astrocytoma
  • medulloblastoma
  • ependymoma

If your child has been diagnosed with another type of brain tumour you might find our general information on tests, treatment and support helpful.

Last reviewed: 
13 Mar 2019
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