Central Nervous System Tumors - Childhood: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2019

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Childhood Central Nervous System Tumors. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

A central nervous system (CNS) tumor begins when healthy cells in the brain or the spinal cord change and grow out of control, forming a mass. A tumor can be either cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

A CNS tumor is especially problematic because a person’s thought processes and movements may be affected. This type of tumor may be challenging to treat because the tissues around the tumor are often vital to the body’s functioning. The treatment of CNS tumors in infants and young children may be especially challenging because a child's brain is still developing.

The brain is the center of thought, memory, and emotion. It controls the 5 senses, which include smell, touch, taste, hearing, and sight. It also controls movement and other basic functions of the body, including heartbeat, circulation, and breathing. The spinal cord consists of nerves that carry information back and forth between the body and the brain.

Anatomy of the brain

The brain is made up of 4 major parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and meninges.

  • The cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, contains 2 cerebral hemispheres and is divided into 4 lobes where specific functions occur.

    • The frontal lobe controls reasoning, emotions, problem solving, and parts of speech and movement

    • The parietal lobe controls the sensations of touch, pressure, pain, and temperature

    • The temporal lobe controls memory and the sense of hearing

  • The occipital lobe controls vision

  • The cerebellum, or "little brain," is located underneath the cerebrum. The cerebellum controls coordination and balance.

  • The brain stem, which is the lowest portion of the brain and connects to the spinal cord, controls involuntary functions essential for life, such as a person’s heartbeat and breathing.

  • The meninges are the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. There are 3 meningeal layers, called the dura mater, arachnoid, and pia arachnoid.

Types of CNS tumors

There are many different types of CNS tumors. Some are cancerous and very likely to grow and spread. These are often called very aggressive or high grade. There are also less aggressive types, often called low grade. And some types are noncancerous and not likely to grow and spread. In addition, there are variations within each type that affect how quickly the tumor will grow. Many of these differences depend on genetic changes found within the tumor (see Diagnosis).

The following types of CNS tumors are most common among children:

This section covers CNS tumors diagnosed in children. Learn more about brain tumors in adults.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of children who are diagnosed with a CNS tumor and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.