Astrocytoma: symptoms, causes and treatment

Astrocytomas are the most common brain tumors. We teach you its symptoms, causes and treatment options.

Last update: December 29, 2021

is defined as astrocytoma to tumors that develop in glial cells known as astrocytes. These cells are star-shaped and function as a support for the brain (in conjunction with others such as ependymal cells and oligodendrocytes). These types of tumors are often referred to as gliomas and the evidence indicates that represent up to 60% of primary brain tumors.

This type of tumor is more common in men and primarily affects the cerebral hemispheres. They can also develop in the brainstem or spinal cord, these cases being frequent in young people. In the following lines we describe its symptoms, causes and treatment options today.

Symptoms of astrocytoma

The clinical manifestations of astrocytomas depend on several factors, but in general they tend to be progressive.

Before reviewing the symptoms of astrocytoma, you must first understand that these are usually cataloged in different degrees. The degrees determine the severity of the signs, the speed with which they appear and of course the prognosis of the patient. As Stanford Health Care reminds us, the following types are distinguished:

  • Grade 1 astrocytomas: They are slow-growing tumors that rarely spread outside the tissue where they have developed. Three types are cataloged: pilocytic, pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma, and subependymal. It is often referred to as non-infiltrating astrocytoma.
  • Grade 2 astrocytomas: They are slow-growing tumors that can spread to surrounding tissue. They can also increase the rate of growth as they develop. They are classified into two types: fibrillar and mixed oligoastrocytoma.
  • Grade 3 astrocytomas: fast-growing tumors that are classified as malignant. They tend to invade surrounding areas and spread easily. It is also known as anaplastic astrocytoma.
  • Grade 4 astrocytomas: it is the most aggressive type in terms of the rate of growth and spread in the periphery of the brain, brainstem, or spinal cord. It is also known as glioblastoma.

Unfortunately, most cases correspond to grade 4 and grade 3, the most aggressive variant being the most common of all. Grade 1 and 2 tumors are less common along with the more benign. The symptoms vary according to the variant developed, although in general we can stipulate the following:

  • Persistent headache
  • Decreased cognitive abilities.
  • Double vision or blurred vision.
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Weakness to hold things with the hands.
  • Seizure episodes.
  • Memory loss.
  • Alterations in mood or behavior.

It may take months and even years before the first symptoms begin to appear. It depends on variables such as the area where the tumor has developed and the degree to which it corresponds. For example, a grade 1 astrocytoma developed on the front has to grow long before symptoms develop.

Causes of astrocytoma

The causes of the development of this type of brain tumor are not known. However, like other types of tumors, genetic abnormalities, immune compromises, diet, stress and exposure to certain environmental factors can converge for its manifestation. Even so, there are no alternatives to prevent astrocytoma.

For example, and according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), inherited syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni, Turcot, tuberous sclerosis, and neurofibromatosis 1 are a latent risk factor for tumor development. So are ionizing radiation (radiotherapy) and exposure to certain war chemicals (Agent Orange).

Contrary to what some media proclaim, the use of mobile phones or interaction with telephone networks are not associated with the development of these or other tumors. A healthy lifestyle does not guarantee disease prevention, although it is generally recommended as part of a comprehensive wellness program.

Treatment options

The severity of many of the tumors can prevent treatments from being effective, although fortunately there are several modalities available.

Treatment of astrocytoma varies according to the grade and characteristics of the tumor. It also changes according to the age, the health of the patient and of course the place where it has developed. Let’s review some of the alternatives to treat this type of brain tumor:

  • Surgery: restricted for grade 1 and 2 tumors that have developed in easily accessible areas. Since grade 3 and 4 astrocytomas usually return in most cases, surgery is not the most promising option.
  • Radiotherapy: it is often used as an adjunct to surgery to get rid of traces of the tumor or as the main treatment for malignant grades. It is done through sessions that can be extended for up to six weeks.
  • Chemotherapy: a first-line treatment for grade 3 and 4 astrocytomas, and in some cases for the more benign variants. The intake is done on a cycle basis and its side effects are generally minor. Patients can develop anemia and fatigue.
  • Electric field therapy: It consists of the use of a special device in the style of a helmet that provides electric fields at a certain frequency. Its function is to delay the progression of the tumor and it must be used at least 18 hours a day.

This is the action plan used by most experts in order to counteract the advance of the tumor. Medications may also be prescribed to cope with the symptoms, especially in patients who have had at least one seizure episode.

Other alternatives are targeted therapies, virus therapy, and immunotherapy. These are still considered experimental, although the results in some patients portend a promising future. The prognosis is better in younger patients and in those who have developed the mildest grades of the tumor.

Both the patient and the specialist must agree on the treatment indicated based on the context. An action in the early stages can make a big difference, so be aware of symptoms to seek medical assistance as soon as they occur.

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