Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children

+ -Text Size

Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Do we know what causes brain and spinal cord tumors in children?

The cause of most central nervous system tumors is not fully understood. But researchers have found some of the chemical changes that occur in normal brain cells that may lead them to form brain tumors.

Normal human cells grow and function based mainly on the information contained in each cell’s chromosomes. Chromosomes are long strands of DNA in each cell. Brain tumors, like other tumors, are usually caused by changes (mutations) in a person’s DNA. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look.

Some genes control when our cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Certain genes that help cells grow and divide are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division, or cause cells to die at the right time, are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. These gene changes can be inherited from a parent (as is sometimes the case with childhood cancers), or more commonly they may happen spontaneously during a person’s lifetime if cells in the body make mistakes as they divide to form 2 new cells.

In recent years, researchers have found the gene changes that cause some rare inherited syndromes (like neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau syndrome) and increase the risk of developing some brain and spinal cord tumors. For example, the Li-Fraumeni syndrome is caused by changes in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene. Normally, this gene prevents cells with damaged DNA from growing. Changes in this gene increase the risk of developing brain tumors (particularly gliomas), as well as some other cancers.

In most cases, it is not known why people without inherited syndromes develop changes in their central nervous system cells. Most risk factors for cancer somehow damage genes. For example, tobacco smoke is a risk factor for lung cancer and several other cancers because it contains chemicals that can damage genes. The brain is relatively protected from tobacco smoke and other cancer-causing chemicals that we might breathe in or eat, so these factors are not likely to play a major role in these cancers.

Several different gene changes must usually occur in normal cells before they become cancerous. There are many kinds of brain tumors, each of which may have different sets of gene changes. A number of gene or chromosome changes have been found in different brain tumor types, but there are probably many others that have not yet been found.

Researchers now understand some of the gene changes that occur in different types of brain tumors, but it’s still not clear what might cause these changes. Some gene changes might be inherited, but most brain and spinal cord tumors in children are not the result of known inherited syndromes. Most gene changes probably are random events that sometimes happen inside a cell because it just makes a mistake when copying its DNA, without having an outside cause.

Other than radiation, there are no known lifestyle-related or environmental causes of childhood brain tumors, so it is important to remember that there is nothing these children or their parents could have done to prevent these cancers.


Last Medical Review: 03/22/2013
Last Revised: 01/31/2014