Brain tumours

What is a brain tumour?

Cancers that start in the brain are called primary brain tumours. These are different to cancers that have spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body, which are called secondary brain tumours or brain metastases.

Brain tumours are graded from 1 to 4, according to how they look under the microscope, how fast they are likely to grow, and how likely they are to spread.

High grade (3 and 4) tumours are likely to be more aggressive, growing rapidly and spreading into surrounding brain tissue. These tumours are classed as malignant and account for around half of all diagnosed brain tumours.

Low grade (1 and 2) tumours are very slow-growing and do not spread beyond the part of the brain in which they started. These tumours are classed as benign. Unlike benign tumours in other parts of the body, benign brain tumours can be life-threatening.

Types of brain tumours

There are around 130 different types of brain tumour, most of which are very rare. They are usually named after the type of cell from which they develop and/or the area of the brain in which they are growing.

Most commonly, brain tumours develop from cells that support the nerve cells of the brain. These are called glial cells, and a tumour of glial cells is called a glioma.

The most common type of glioma is a glioblastoma (also called glioblastoma multiforme). Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumour, accounting for almost a quarter of all brain tumour diagnoses. It is also one of the most aggressive tumours. It has a devastating impact – there is no cure and most patients die within one year of diagnosis. 


Who is affected?

Every year, 11,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Brain tumours, like most other cancer types, get more common as people age. In contrast to most other cancer types, however, brain tumours also occur relatively frequently at younger ages. Brain tumours are the second most common type of cancer in children; incidence remains relatively stable until age 25 to 29 years, before increasing more sharply.

Impact of brain tumours

There are around 5,000 deaths due to brain tumours every year in the UK.

Survival rates vary widely between the different types of brain tumour. The grade and location of the tumour are important factors in determining what treatments are available and how effective they will be.

Age is also an important factor. Survival is highest in younger patients, with around 60 per cent of people diagnosed under the age of 40 surviving at least five years, compared with only 1 per cent of those diagnosed aged 80 and over.

In children (aged 0 to 14 years), the five-year survival rate is 75 per cent but nonetheless, brain tumours hit children particularly hard. Many of those who survive are left with a lifelong burden of disabilities and health problems as a result of the tumour and its treatment.

Many adults are also left with serious long-term disabilities and health issues.

How we help

Research into brain tumours is a priority research area for Brain Research UK.

This reflects a large unmet need, coupled with a lack of sufficient research investment from other sources.

We want to improve the outlook for people with brain tumours by funding research that takes forward our understanding of the mechanisms underlying tumour development and helps develop better ways to diagnose and treat these tumours.

We have recently awarded two research grants for work on brain tumours. Both are focused on glioblastoma: