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What is an Astrocytoma?

An astrocytoma is a brain tumor that begins in astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells located in the brain and spinal cord. The most common type of cell in the brain, astrocytes play an important role in the function of neurons. Astrocytomas are the most common type of primary brain tumor within the group of tumors called gliomas. Primary means they have originated in the brain instead of spreading from another part of the body.

Astrocytomas, including pilocytic astrocytoma and anaplastic astrocytoma, account for about three-fourths of all glioma brain tumors and are classified as low-grade and high-grade to describe their degree of malignancy.

Low-grade astrocytomas are either Grade 1 or Grade 2. Grade 1, or pilocytic astrocytoma, is the most benign type. It is slow-growing and most common in children and adolescents. Grade 2, or diffuse astrocytoma, is relatively slow-growing and most common in young adults.

High-grade astrocytomas are either Grade 3, or anaplastic astrocytoma, which grow rather rapidly, or Grade 4, called glioblastoma multiforme, the most malignant, aggressive, and lethal of all astrocytomas. This is the most common brain tumor in adults and also the most common astrocytoma.

Astrocytomas are most common in the cerebrum, the largest part of the brain located at the top of the head; the cerebellum, the part of the brain near the middle back of the head; the brain stem, which connects the brain to the spinal cord just above the back of the neck; the hypothalamus, the area in the middle of the base of the brain; the visual pathway, which includes nerves that connect the eye with the brain; and the spinal cord, the column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back.

What You Can Expect at UTHealth Houston Neurosciences

At UTHealth Houston Neurosciences, neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, and radiation oncologists work together to determine the care each patient needs, discussing treatment options as a group. This approach saves our patients time and money and allows our specialists to share each other’s insights, leading to better treatment decision-making and outcomes.

We first investigate options for nonsurgical treatment, including medical management, pain management, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and watchful waiting. When surgery is needed, our neurosurgeons routinely employ innovative, minimally invasive techniques. Throughout the treatment process, our team works closely with the doctor who referred you to ensure a smooth transition back to your normal care plan. While you are with us, you can expect expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.

Causes of Astrocytoma

Possible risk factors for astrocytoma include past radiation therapy to the brain and having certain genetic disorders, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 or tuberous sclerosis.

Early Signs of Astrocytoma and Diagnosis

Signs and symptoms of astrocytoma are unique to each patient and depend on where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord, the size of the tumor, how fast it grows, and in children, the child’s age and development. Some symptoms appear slowly and grow progressively worse over time. Others may occur suddenly.

Symptoms may include headache, nausea and vomiting, vision and hearing problems, loss of balance and trouble walking, worsening handwriting, slowed speech, weakness or loss of motor function on one side of the body, memory loss, drowsiness or lethargy, change in personality or behavior, seizures, and weight loss or weight gain for no known reason.

Diagnosis begins with a physical exam and history and a neurological exam to check mental status, coordination and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. Your neurologist will check central and peripheral vision in each eye. An MRI scan will make a series of detailed pictures of the brain and spinal cord. A contrast agent injected into a vein before the MRI collects around cancer cells to make them appear brighter in the scan. A biopsy will confirm the grade of the astrocytoma.

Advanced Treatment Options

At UTHealth Houston Neurosciences, we give patients access to the most advanced treatment delivered with compassion.

Treatment varies based on the tumor type, grade, size, and location, as well as the patient’s age, overall health, and other factors. Some tumors may require watchful waiting as neurologists and neurosurgeons track changes in the tumor, while higher-grade cases require surgery and/or radiation and chemotherapy, high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant, targeted therapy that attacks cancer cells without harming normal cells, immunotherapy, or new types of treatments being tested in clinical trials.

Neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, and radiation oncologists discuss cases in depth weekly at a tumor board review. Working as a team ensures that each patient benefits from the full spectrum of expertise and the best treatment options available, including new drug therapies and immunotherapies being tested in clinical trials.

Children with astrocytomas are seen by a team of healthcare providers that may include a pediatrician, pediatric neurosurgeon, neurologist, neuropathologist, neuroradiologist, radiation oncologist, rehabilitation specialist, endocrinologist, and child psychologist.

Treatment options and the chance of recovery depend on whether the tumor is a low-grade or high-grade astrocytoma, where the tumor has formed, how fast it is growing, and whether cancer cells remain after surgery.

Clinical Trials

When conventional therapies prove unsuccessful, we provide our patients access to leading-edge clinical trials of investigational drugs and procedures.

View trials related to brain tumors here »

Brain Tumor Types

Acoustic neuroma
Arachnoid Cyst
Brain metastases
Choroid plexus tumor
Facts about brain tumors
Gamma Knife Radiosurgery
Germ cell tumor
Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM)
Malignant meningioma
Pituitary adenoma and Cushing’s syndrome
Pituitary tumor
Skull base tumor

Contact Us

At UTHealth Houston Neurosciences, we offer patients access to specialized neurological care at clinics across the greater Houston area. To ask us a question, schedule an appointment, or learn more about us, please call (713) 486-8000, or click below to send us a message. In the event of an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.