A brain tumour that consists of astrocytes is called an astrocytoma. Astrocytes are the so-called supporting tissue cells of the brain, they are also called glial cells. From this name is derived the further term for tumours of this tissue in the brain and spinal cord: gliomas.
Astrocytomas are therefore counted among the tumour group of gliomas. The malignancy of such a brain tumour is read off the WHO grade, which indicates the extent to which the tumour cells differ from normal healthy glial cells. The clearer the difference, the more malignant the brain tumour.
The treatment options and prognosis also depend on the WHO grade classification. Glioblastoma is the most malignant glioma (WHO grade IV) and has the worst prognosis. In contrast, the pilocytic astrocytoma (WHO grade I) is completely curable by surgery. Here it becomes apparent that with increasing WHO grade the prognosis also becomes worse. Patients with low-grade astrocytomas can often survive the disease for several years.
Classification of gliomas according to WHO grades
- Grade I WHO – Pilocytic astrocytoma
- Grade II WHO – Differentiated astrocytoma or oligodendroglioma
- Grade III WHO – Anaplastic astrocytoma or anaplastic oligodendroglioma
- Grade IV WHO – Glioblastoma grade 4
The causes of an astrocytoma are largely unexplained. The tumour develops from the supporting tissue (“glia”) of the brain and is particularly common in the hereditary disease neurofibromatosis type 1 as a pilocystic astrocytoma. Likewise, an increased risk of astrocytoma is observed in persons with increased radiation exposure, which means that the radiation can be determined as the cause here. The exact causes of glioblastoma are also not yet known and increased radiation exposure is suspected as a risk for the disease.
Most often, men in middle to advanced age suffer from astrocytoma and also from glioblastoma. The most common symptoms are: If the tumour spreads and presses on the nerve tracts in the brain or spinal cord, neurological deficits may also occur:
- Seizures (epileptic fits)
- Signs of increased intracranial pressure (nausea, vomiting)
- Numbness/sensitivity disorders
- Visual disorders
- Changes of character
To be able to diagnose astrocytoma or glioblastoma, imaging procedures such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head are essential.
In order to treat the astrocytoma effectively, the tumor must be completely removed if possible. If this is not possible, an attempt is made to at least reduce the tumor size. There are several treatment options, which often (must) be combined: Which method is used in an individual case depends on the symptoms, the WHO grade of the tumor, the general physical condition and also the age of the patient. – Surgery (operation)
- Radiation treatment
Until now, there are no known general measures to prevent an astrocytoma or glioblastoma. However, it is generally recommended to avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation (especially in children) and contact with pollutants and chemicals suspected of causing cancer. A healthy lifestyle with a varied, low-fat diet, regular exercise and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol helps to reduce the risk of cancer and keeps the body as healthy as possible.