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About 3,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with brain tumors each year, most between the ages of 3 to 12. These tumors are very different from brain tumors in adults and are generally more responsive to treatment.

The majority of brain tumors are caused by genetic abnormalities within the tumor cells. Researchers are studying the parents of children with brain tumors and their exposure to certain chemicals. Some chemicals may change the structure of a gene that protects the body from cancer. In addition, children who have received radiation therapy to the head as part of treatment for other malignancies have a higher risk for developing brain tumors.

Brain tumors may be benign or malignant. Benign tumors don't contain cancer cells. If completely removed by surgery, they often don't return. Benign tumors that can't be completely removed, however, may continue to grow and may require treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation. Malignant or cancerous brain tumors usually grow quickly, spread to surrounding tissue and may return after treatment.

UCSF neurologists and neurosurgeons are supported by one of the most advanced diagnostic imaging centers in the world, staffed by pioneers in the field. We offer MRI scanning during operations to increase the accuracy of surgery, and are one of only a few centers in California offering noninvasive treatment with the Gamma Knife and CyberKnife.

We also lead the way in research for new treatments. Our patients have the opportunity to participate in studies of promising new medications and treatments. Our research laboratories also study the molecular foundations of childhood brain tumors.

Types of Brain Tumors

There are two types of brain tumors — primary and secondary.

Tumors that begin in brain tissue are known as primary brain tumors. The most common are gliomas, which begin in the glia, or supportive, tissue of the brain. There are several types of gliomas, including astrocytomas, brainstem gliomas and ependymomas.

Other types of primary brain tumors that do not begin in glial tissue include medulloblastoma, craniopharyngioma, germ cell tumors, pineal region tumors and choroid plexus tumors.

Cancer that begins in other parts of the body but spreads to the brain is called a secondary brain tumor. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the brain, it is a secondary brain tumor resulting from metastatic lung cancer. The cells in the secondary tumor resemble abnormal lung cells, not abnormal brain cells. Secondary brain tumors are rare in children, accounting for less than 5 percent of cases.

UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your child's doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your child's provider.

Where to get care (2)


Brain Tumor Program

Brain Tumor Program

San Francisco / Oakland / Walnut Creek


Neurosurgery Program

Neurosurgery Program

San Francisco / Oakland / Los Gatos / Greenbrae / Modesto / Sacramento /...

Our research initiatives

  • ucsf-brain-tumor-center-clinical-trials-2x

    UCSF Brain Tumor Center Clinical Trials

Awards & recognition

  • One of the nation's best in neurology & neurosurgery

  • Ranked among the nation's best in 10 specialties

Learning never stops

Our classroom and bedside classes help kids get credit and keep learning during treatment.

See our school program