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What are gliomas?

Glioma is a term that is used to describe a group of tumors that arise from the glial cells that support the function of the other main brain cell type - the neuron. Gliomas usually happen in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, the largest, outermost part of the brain that controls many functions that include movement, speech, thinking, and emotions. They can also affect the brain stem, the lower part of the brain that controls functions like breathing, blood pressure, and the heartbeat, the optic nerves, and cerebellum, a part of the brain that deals with balance and other non-thinking functions. These tumors can be benign or malignant. 


What causes gliomas?

The exact cause of gliomas are unknown. In a small number of people, genetic disorders like neurofibromatosis or tuberous sclerosis can cause them; exposure to radiation may also play a factor, but no specific method is known for preventing gliomas or other brain tumors.


What types of gliomas are there?

Gliomas come in several types, and depending on the type of glial cell it comes from determines the category of a glioma. 

  • Astrocytoma; this type of glioma is a tumor that originates from astrocytes, the star-shaped glial cells in the brain. The fastest growing astrocytomas are called glioblastomas.
  • Oligodendroglioma; these gliomas come from oligodendrocytes which are cells that normally form a cover for nerve fibers in the brain.
  • Oligoastrocytoma; these gliomas are a mix of abnormal oligodendrocytes and astrocytes.
  • Ependymoma; this type of glioma comes from cells lining the cavities of the brain and spinal cord; there are most common in children.
  • Ganglioglioma; this rare glioma can occur in the brain or spine and forms from both cells and nerve cells. 


What are the symptoms of gliomas?

Symptoms are the same as those of other brain tumors and depend largely on where the tumor is in the brain. Common symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Balance problems, like dizziness and trouble with walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Motor or sensory disorders


How are gliomas diagnosed?

Diagnosing a brain or other central nervous system tumor usually starts with a neurological exam to assess your reflexes, vision, balance, speech, and other functions. If your physician suspects a glioma or another type of brain tumor, you may need diagnostic tests like an MRI or CT scan.


How are gliomas treated?

If you are diagnosed with a glioma, your physician may recommend surgery; these procedures are often the preferred initial treatments for gliomas and other brain tumors. If the tumor can be removed without risking neurological damage, your physician may remove a part of your skull, enter your brain, and remove as much of the tumor as possible.

Gliomas can also be treated with radiation therapy which is used to destroy any microscopic tumor cells that remain after surgery. If your glioma is inoperable, cannot be surgically removed without risking brain damage, radiation can also be used to treat the tumor and relieve your symptoms.

Chemotherapy involves the use of medications that stop the growth of abnormal cells and may also be used for gliomas. Chemotherapy can be given orally, through an IV, or placed at the site of your tumor through a shunt. 

Some gliomas can be hard to treat, so if you or a family member has been diagnosed with a glioma, you may want to ask your physician if there are clinical trials that can be considered. In addition, you may want to consider getting a second opinion, if time allows; the peace of mind a second opinion provides may be well worth the effort.