Astrocytoma is type of cancerous brain tumor. This type of tumor begins from small, star-shaped cells in the brain called astrocytes. Astrocytes are one of several types of supporting cells in the brain. These types of cells are called glial cells. An astrocytoma is a type of the larger group of brain tumors called gliomas.
Astrocytoma may occur anywhere in the brain, but particularly the cerebrum in adults and the optic nerves in children.
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The exact cause is unknown. Some possible causes of brain tumors include:
- Certain occupations
- Environmental factors
The exact risk factors for astrocytomas have not been identified. Some studies suggest the following risk factors increase your chance of this tumor:
- Genetic disorders, including neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis
- Occupational exposure to:
- Oil refining
- Rubber manufacturing
The first symptoms of any brain tumor can be caused as the tumor grows. The growth can increase pressure in the brain. Symptoms may include:
- Visual changes
- Personality changes
- Problems with memory, thinking, and concentration
- Problems with walking
Symptoms will vary depending on the location of the tumor. For example:
- Frontal lobe—Gradual changes in mood and personality, loss of muscle function on one side of the body
- Temporal lobe—Problems with coordination, speech, and memory
- Parietal lobe—Problems with sensation, writing, or fine motor skills
- Cerebellum—Problems with coordination and balance
- Occipital lobe—Problems with vision, visual hallucinations
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor may need to look at pictures of your brain. This can be done through:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
You may also have biopsy/resection to remove a sample of brain tissue to test it for cancer cells.
A specialist will determine the grade of the tumor. Astrocytomas are graded from I to IV. These grades indicate the outlook and rate of tumor growth.
- Grades I and II—These low-grade astrocytomas grow slowly. They generally stay in an area of the brain. They are more commonly found in younger patients. Grade II astrocytomas can spread.
- Grades III and IV—These high-grade tumors grow rapidly. They can spread throughout the brain and spinal cord. Aggressive treatment is needed. This is the most common type found in adults. Grade III tumors are called anaplastic astrocytoma. Grade IV tumors are called glioblastoma multiforme or GBM.
Specific treatment for brain tumors at UVA will be determined by your doctor based on:
- Your age, overall health and medical history
- Type, location and size of the tumor
- Extent of the condition
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
- Expectations for the course of the condition
- Your opinion or preference
Treatment at UVA may include (alone or in combination):
- Surgery is usually the first step in the treatment of brain tumors. The goal is to remove as much of the tumor as possible while maintaining neurological function. A biopsy is also done to examine the types of cells the tumor is made of for a diagnosis. This is frequently done if the tumor is in an area with sensitive structures around it that may be injured during removal.
- Radiation therapy
- Steroids are used to treat and prevent swelling, especially in the brain.
- Anti-seizure medication treats and prevents seizures associated with intracranial pressure.
- Placement of a ventriculoperitoneal shunt (also called a VP shunt), which is a tube that is placed into the fluid filled spaces of the brain called ventricles. The other end of the tube is placed into the abdomen to help drain excess fluid that can build up in the brain and cause an increase in pressure in the brain.
- Bone marrow transplantation
- Supportive care minimizes the side effects of the tumor or treatment.
- Rehabilitation may be necessary to regain lost motor skills and muscle strength; speech, physical and occupational therapists may help with rehabilitation.
- Antibiotics treat and prevent infections.
- Continuous follow-up care to help manage the disease, detect recurrence of the tumor and manage late effects of treatment.
- Gamma Knife (stereotactic radiosurgery)
Newer therapies that we may use to treat brain cancer include gene therapy where a special gene is added to a virus that is injected into the brain tumor. An antivirus drug is then given that kills the cancer cells that have been infected with the altered virus.
There are no prevention guidelines since the exact cause of astrocytoma is not known.