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About Astrocytomas

Astrocytomas are tumors that develop from astrocytes, star-shaped support cells in the brain and spinal cord. At Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, we specialize in diagnosing and surgically treating astrocytomas of the brain and spinal cord.

Astrocytomas that develop in the brain are the subject of this page. For information about Spinal Astrocytomas, please click here.

Astrocytomas are the most common tumors in the family of tumors called gliomas. Gliomas are tumors that originate from glial cells, which are the cells that support the neurons in the brain. These include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and microglia. There are several types of astrocytomas, and the World Health Organization assigns each type a grade on a scale of one to four. Lower grades (Grade I and II) are assigned to slow-growing tumors that are typically benign, whereas higher grades indicate a fast-growing tumor that is malignant. Malignant tumors tend to invade surrounding healthy tissue, causing further damage. Lower-grade tumors can progress to become higher grade.

Types of astrocytomas include the following:

  • Grade I: Juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas, sometimes called simply pilocytic astrocytomas, occur mostly in children and young adults. Often slow-growing, these tumors may require treatment on the basis of their size. Astrocytomas that grow in the cerebellum are usually this type. For more information about cerebellar astrocytomas, please click here.
  • Grade II: Diffuse astrocytomas grow slowly and may spread to nearby tissues.
  • Grade III: Anaplastic astrocytomas grow quickly and can spread to nearby tissues. These tumors are aggressive and require rigorous treatment.
  • Grade IV: Glioblastoma multiforme, also called glioblastomas, grow rapidly and spread to nearby tissues. They are the most aggressive type of astrocytoma and require rigorous treatment.

Astrocytomas can also be classified by location:

  • Brainstem gliomas are astrocytomas that grow in the brainstem. Located toward the base of the skull and above the back of the neck, the brainstem coordinates functions essential for life, including breathing and heart rate. Brainstem gliomas can be any grade, but they are usually high grade. They occur mostly in children and young adults.
  • Pineal astrocytic tumors grow in a part of the brain called the pineal gland. This gland is a pea-sized region that produces the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleeping and waking cycle. Pineal astrocytic tumors can be any grade.

Some astrocytomas contain astrocytes and another type of glial cell, oligodendrocytes. These tumors are called mixed gliomas, or oligoastrocytomas.

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