MSD Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional




Steven A. Goldman

, MD, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center;

Nimish A. Mohile

, MD, University of Rochester Medical Center

Last full review/revision Jun 2018| Content last modified Jun 2018
Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Topic Resources

Gliomas are primary tumors that originate in brain parenchyma. Symptoms and diagnosis are similar to those of other brain tumors. Treatment involves surgical excision, radiation therapy, and, for some tumors, chemotherapy. Excision rarely cures.

Gliomas include

  • Astrocytomas

  • Oligodendrogliomas

  • Glioblastoma multiforme

  • Ependymomas

Many gliomas infiltrate brain tissue diffusely and irregularly.

Astrocytomas are the most common gliomas. They are classified histologically and, in some cases, based on the presence of specific genetic markers, according to the WHO classification (1).

In ascending order of malignancy, astrocytomas are classified as

  • Grade I: Pilocytic astrocytomas

  • Grade II: Low-grade astrocytomas

  • Grade III: Anaplastic astrocytomas (and anaplastic oligoastrocytomas)

  • Grade IV: Glioblastomas and diffuse midline gliomas

Pilocytic, low-grade, or anaplastic astrocytomas tend to develop in younger patients and can later evolve into glioblastomas (called secondary glioblastomas). Glioblastomas can also develop de novo (called primary glioblastomas), usually in middle-aged or elderly people. Glioblastomas contain chromosomally heterogeneous cells. Both primary and secondary glioblastomas have distinct genetic characteristics, which can change as the tumors evolve. Secondary glioblastomas typically have the IDH1 mutation.

Some astrocytomas contain oligodendroglioma cells; patients with these tumors (called oligoastrocytomas) usually have a better prognosis than those with pure astrocytomas.

Oligodendrogliomas (WHO grade II) are among the most slow-growing gliomas. They are most common in the forebrain, particularly the frontal lobes. Oligodendrogliomas are typically characterized by deletion of the p arm of chromosome 1 (1p deletion), deletion of the q arm of chromosome 19 (19q deletion), or both. These deletions are diagnostic for oligodendroglial tumors, predict longer survival, and predict a better response to radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Like astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas can evolve into more aggressive forms, such as anaplastic oligodendrogliomas (WHO grade III), which are managed accordingly.

Diffuse midline gliomas are high-grade (WHO grade III to IV) astrocytic tumors that primarily affect children. These tumors include diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, which are aggressive and typically lethal tumors that infiltrate the brain stem with rostral extension into the hypothalamus and thalamus and that infiltrate the medulla and spinal cord inferiorly. Children with neurofibromatosis type 1 are at an increased risk of developing these tumors.

Ependymomas are uncommon in adults. They are classified as

  • Grade I: Subependymoma

  • Grade II: Ependymoma

  • Grade III: Anaplastic ependymoma

  • Grade IV: Ependymoblastoma (which are rare and occur primarily in infants)

All ependymomas typically arise from the ventricular wall and hence may arise in the brain, brain stem, or spinal cord. Ependymomas of the 4th ventricle in particular can manifest with obstructive hydrocephalus.

Symptoms and signs of gliomas vary by location (see Table: Common Localizing Manifestations of Primary Brain Tumors ). Diagnosis is the same as that of other brain tumors: MRI followed by biopsy.

Images of Gliomas

General reference

  • 1. Louis DN, Perry A, Reifenberger G, et al: The 2016 World Health Organization classification of tumors of the central nervous system: A summary. Acta Neuropathol 131 (6):803–820, 2016. doi: 10.1007/s00401-016-1545-1.


  • Surgical excision

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy for some types

Anaplastic astrocytomas and glioblastomas

Treatment involves surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy to reduce tumor mass. Excising as much tumor as possible is safe, prolongs survival, and improves neurologic function.

After surgery, patients receive a full tumor dose of radiation therapy (60 Gy over 6 wk); ideally, conformal radiation therapy, which targets the tumor and spares normal brain tissue, is used.

For glioblastomas, chemotherapy with temozolomide is now routinely given with radiation therapy. The dose is

  • 75/mg/m2/day for 42 days (including weekend days when radiation is skipped)

  • Then 150 mg/m2 po once/day for 5 days/mo during the next month

  • Followed by 200 mg/m2 po once/day for 5 days/mo in subsequent months for a total of 6 to 12 mo

During treatment with temozolomide, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole 800 mg/160 mg is given 3 times/wk to prevent Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia.

Patients receiving chemotherapy require a CBC at varying intervals.

Implantation of chemotherapy wafers during surgical resection may be appropriate for some patients.

Use of tumor-treating fields plus adjuvant temozolomide may be appropriate for some patients. Tumor-treating fields interfere with glioblastoma mitosis and organelle assembly by delivering alternating electric fields to the scalp. In one randomized clinical trial, tumor-treating fields appeared to improve survival in patients with glioblastoma (1).

Investigational therapies (eg, stereotactic radiosurgery, new chemotherapeutic drugs, gene or immune therapy, radiation therapy plus temozolomide) should also be considered.

After conventional multimodal treatment, the survival rate for patients with glioblastomas is about 50% at 1 yr, 25% at 2 yr, and 10 to 15% at 5 yr. Prognosis is better in the following cases:

  • Patients are < 45 yr.

  • Histology is that of anaplastic astrocytoma or a lower-grade tumor (rather than glioblastoma).

  • Initial excision improves neurologic function and leaves minimal or no residual tumor.

  • Tumors have the IDH1 mutation.

  • MGMT (methylguanine-methyltransferase) promoter methylation is present.

With standard treatment, the median survival time is about 30 mo for patients with anaplastic astrocytoma and about 15 mo for patients with glioblastomas.

Low-grade astrocytomas and low-grade oligodendrogliomas

Maximal safe surgical resection is indicated for low-grade astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas. After complete resection in patients < 40, observation may be considered. For other patients, radiation therapy plus adjuvant chemotherapy prolongs survival (2).

Median survival ranges from 1 to 2 yr in high-risk patients (without the IDH1 mutation, with incomplete resection) to > 10 yr in those with favorable prognostic factors. In high-risk patients, malignancy is likely to progress further.

Diffuse midline gliomas

In patients with diffuse midline gliomas. radiation therapy may be used to slow disease progression, although its use is largely palliative because survival is typically less than a year.


CSF sampling and craniospinal imaging should be used to stage ependymomas and to assess spread in the CNS.

Treatment of ependymomas includes maximal safe surgical resection for unifocal disease or symptomatic tumors. For higher-grade tumors, radiation therapy can be directed locally or include the entire craniospinal axis depending on how far the tumor has spread. The role of chemotherapy is not well-defined.

With treatment, overall 5-yr survival rate is about 50%; however, for patients with no residual tumor, the 5-yr survival rate is > 70%.

Treatment references

  • 1. Stupp R, Taillibert S, Kanner A, et al: Effect of tumor-treating fields plus maintenance temozolomide vs maintenance temozolomide alone on survival in patients with glioblastoma: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA 318 (23):2306–2316, 2017. doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.18718.

  • 2. Buckner JC, Shaw EG, Pugh SL, et al: Radiation plus procarbazine, CCNU, and vincristine in low-grade glioma. N Engl J Med 374 (14):1344-1355, 2016. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1500925

Key Points

  • Gliomas are primary tumors that originate in brain parenchyma; they include astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, and ependymomas.

  • Gliomas vary in location, degree of malignancy, treatment, and prognosis.

Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Professionals also read

Also of Interest


View All
How to do the Cranial Nerve Examination
How to do the Cranial Nerve Examination
3D Models
View All
Vertebra and Spinal Nerve Roots
3D Model
Vertebra and Spinal Nerve Roots