What are Brain and Spinal Tumors in Children?

What are Brain and Spinal Tumors in Children?

Brain and spinal tumors are masses of cancer cells that grow uncontrollably. In children, these tumors tend to form in different places in the brain and spine than in adults. Some of these tumors are benign, meaning they are self-contained and don’t spread to surrounding tissue or other body parts. They can cause harm, however, by pressing on normal brain tissue.

Other tumors are malignant, meaning they can spread throughout the body. While childhood cancers are rare overall, brain tumors are children’s second most common type of cancer. More than 4,000 children and teens are diagnosed each year in the US.

Types of Brain and Spinal Tumors in Children


Doctors identify different types of childhood brain and spinal tumors depending on where they are located, what type of cells they arise from, and how fast they grow or spread. At NewYork-Presbyterian, we have expertise in all types of brain and spinal tumors in children of all ages, from infancy to early adulthood, including:

Posterior fossa tumors. The most common type of pediatric brain tumors, these arise in an area at the base of the skull called the posterior fossa. These tumors can be further identified by their precise location. Types of posterior fossa tumor include:

  • Brainstem tumor, a tumor in the area where the brain connects to the spinal cord. Tumors in this location are difficult to treat because of the risk of neurological damage
  • Pontine tumor, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare and difficult-to-treat tumor that almost always occurs in children, in the brainstem area called the pons
  • Medulloblastoma, a fast-growing malignant tumor that usually forms in the brain’s cerebellum

Gliomas. Glial cells make up about half the cells in the brain and are found in different locations. A glioma might be named for its place of origin, such as:

  • Optic nerve glioma
  • Brainstem glioma
  • Thalamic glioma

Other tumors arising from glial cells are named for subtypes of those cells:

  • Astrocytoma, which originates in star-shaped astrocyte cells
  • Oligodendroglioma, which grows from oligodendrocyte cells
  • Ependymoma originates in ependymal cells
  • Schwannoma grows from nerve cells, some of which are found in the head and neck

Non-glial tumors. These growths originate in other brain structures and include:

  • Craniopharyngiomas, which develop above or around the pituitary gland
  • Meningiomas, which arise from the outer protective layers of the brain
  • Embryonal tumors, which develop as a fetus is forming, and include medulloblastoma

Additional brain and spinal tumor types include:

  • Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT), a fast-growing tumor that occurs mainly in children under age three
  • Gliomatosis cerebri, an extremely rare and aggressive type of glioma
  • Glioblastoma, diagnosed most often in adults
  • Neurofibromatosis, a condition that is present at birth and is caused by a genetic mutation
  • Hemangioblastoma, a benign tumor caused by an excess growth of blood vessels

Stages of Brain and Spinal Tumors


Not all brain and spinal tumors are considered cancer. If a tumor grows in place and does not invade nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body, they’re called benign tumors. However, benign does not always mean harmless—a benign tumor can put pressure on, and damage, nearby brain areas.

Malignant tumors—the ones that can spread through the brain and spinal cord—are cancers. Experts tend to refer to both as tumors. Tumors are defined by a grade, depending on how fast they grow:

  • Low grade (grade I or II): a slow-growing tumor that is less likely to invade nearby tissues
  • High grade (grade III or IV): a fast-growing tumor that is more likely to spread to other parts of the brain or spine

Signs & Symptoms of Brain and Spinal Tumors in Children


The signs of brain and spinal tumors are not the same for every child. They depend on the location of the tumor, its size, how fast it is growing, and the child’s age and stage of development. Other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Adults with brain and spinal tumors also experience these symptoms.

Talk to your pediatrician if your child has any of these general symptoms of brain tumors in children:

Brain tumor symptoms
  • Morning headache
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems
  • Loss of balance
  • Unusual fatigue or change in activity level
  • Personality changes
  • Seizures
  • Increase in head size (in infants)
Spinal cord tumor symptoms
  • Back pain
  • Pain or numbness that spreads from the back toward the arms or legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Trouble walking

What Causes Brain and Spinal Tumors in Children?


In most cases, no cause is known for childhood brain tumors. Children with certain inherited genetic mutations, or changes, have an increased risk of developing them. These rare inherited syndromes include neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau disease. However, most children with brain and spinal tumors do not have any of these syndromes, and no environmental factors are proven to cause these tumors.

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

There is no clear cause for brain and spinal tumors in children, and very few risk factors have been found. Two factors could increase the chances of a child developing one of these tumors:

  • Having one of these rare inherited genetic syndromes: neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or von Hippel-Lindau disease
  • Radiation therapy given to the head as part of treating another cancer



Other than avoiding radiation exposure, there are no known ways to prevent brain and spinal tumors in children. Doctors generally recommend that pregnant women and children avoid X-rays or CT scans, even though they use much lower levels of radiation than that given for therapy. For young patients with cancer in or near the brain, the benefits of radiation therapy must be weighed against the small risk of future tumors.

Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Brain and Spinal Tumor Care in Children

At NewYork-Presbyterian, we have expertise in treating all types of brain and spinal tumors in children of all ages, from infancy to early adulthood. Schedule an appointment with one of our specialists for an evaluation and to assemble an individualized plan of care with our team.

At NewYork-Presbyterian our goal is to provide the safest, most effective treatment options for getting our young patients with pediatric brain tumors back to their normal childhoods.