Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Overview of Tumors of the Nervous System


Mark H. Bilsky

, MD, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

Reviewed/Revised May 2023

A tumor is an abnormal growth, whether noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). In many parts of the body, a noncancerous tumor causes few or no problems. However, if any growth or mass in the brain (brain tumor Overview of Brain Tumors A brain tumor can be a noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant) growth in the brain. It may originate in the brain or have spread (metastasized) to the brain from another part of the body... read more ) or spinal cord (spinal tumor Spinal Tumors A spinal tumor is a noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant) growth in or around the spinal cord. People may have weak muscles, lose sensation in particular areas of the body, or become... read more ) is getting larger, it can cause considerable damage because the structures that contain the brain (the skull) and spinal cord (the spine) cannot expand to make room for any increase in their contents.

Tumors, whether cancerous or not, can develop from nerve tissue in the brain or spinal cord. Cancerous tumors can spread (metastasize) to the brain or spinal cord from elsewhere in the body.

Some cancers elsewhere in the body cause symptoms of nervous system dysfunction even though there is no evidence that nerve tissue has been invaded. These disorders are called paraneoplastic syndromes Paraneoplastic Syndromes Paraneoplastic (associated with cancer—see also Overview of Cancer) syndromes occur when a cancer causes unusual symptoms due to substances that circulate in the bloodstream. These substances... read more . The most common paraneoplastic syndromes involve dysfunction of the peripheral nerves (polyneuropathy Polyneuropathy Polyneuropathy is the simultaneous malfunction of many peripheral nerves throughout the body. Infections, toxins, drugs, cancers, nutritional deficiencies, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and... read more ) and result in muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling. But more severe paraneoplastic syndromes can cause dementia, mood swings, psychosis (which may involve delusions, hallucinations, and bizarre behavior), seizures, loss of coordination, dizziness, double vision, and abnormal eye movements. These syndromes may be fatal even when the tumor is stable. In such cases, treatment includes removing antibodies that may cause the paraneoplastic syndrome from the blood (plasmapheresis Apheresis ). However, the most effective treatment is removal of the tumor.

Tumors of the nervous system may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, medications such as chemotherapy, or, most often, a combination. Radiation therapy sometimes damages the nervous system Damage to the Nervous System Due to Radiation Therapy Radiation therapy is one component in the treatment of tumors of the nervous system. It is directed at the general area (such as the whole head) when people have several tumors or a tumor that... read more , despite the best efforts to prevent this effect. Chemotherapy can affect brain function, so doctors choose chemotherapy drugs carefully to avoid causing undue harm.

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!