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Low-grade Glioma – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment

Updated on March 6, 2014

A low grade glioma is a type of tumor that develops from glial cells known as astrocytes. It affects the brain and/or the spinal cord. This condition is more common in children.

The electrical impulses that originate in the brain are transmitted by neurons. The glial cells nourish and support these neurons. The uncontrolled and abnormal growth of such glial cells is what causes glioma. Based on the number of abnormal cells observed under a microscope, gliomas are classified into high-grade and low-grade (grade 1 and 2) tumors.

Types of low grade gliomas

Low grade gliomas are further sub-divided into several different types as per their appearance below a microscope. Some of the common types of low grade gliomas are listed below:

  • Diffuse astrocytomas: Also known as fibrillary astrocytoma, diffuse astrocytomas are the most common type of low grade gliomas. It generally affects individuals who are in their late thirties.

  • Gangliogliomas: They have features which are similar to the tumors of the neurons, as well as gliomas.

  • Pilocytic Astrocytomas: They tend to progress at a very slow pace and typically affect individuals younger than 25 years old.

  • Subependymal Giant Cell Astrocytoma: It is a tumor which occurs in individuals affected by tuberous sclerosis disease.

  • Oligodendrogliomas: They are tumors that grow slowly. It is very important to differentiate pilocytic astrocytomas from oligodendrogliomas.

  • Mixed Gliomas: They are a combination of varied glioma subtypes such as oligodendroglioma and diffuse astrocytomas.

  • Optic Nerve Glioma: They can be seen in individuals affected by neurofibromatosis. Optic nerve glioma affects the nerves occurring in the ocular tissues.

Symptoms of low grade glioma

The signs and symptoms of low grade gliomas may vary widely as per the location and size of the tumor, and whether it has migrated to other parts of the brain or spinal cord.

Low grade gliomas have a comparatively slow rate of growth. Because of this, an affected child may experience the symptoms of this condition for several months or years before actually seeking medical attention. Even though every patient experiences the symptoms of low grade gliomas differently, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Loss of vision or vision changes due to presence of low grade gliomas in the visual pathway

  • Seizures or convulsions because of the irritation of healthy brain cells.

  • Difficulties in bladder or bowel movement and/or control because of the presence of low grade gliomas in the spinal cord.

  • Loss or gain in weight, and/or premature puberty in children because the hormone area of the brain is affected by low grade gliomas.

  • Headaches, vomiting, motor control difficulties, lethargy, and fatigue due to accumulation of fluid and excessive pressure on the brain.

Other common symptoms are:

  • Clumsiness

  • Irritability

  • Anomalous gait

  • Decline in academics in affected children

  • Confusion

  • Nausea

  • Problems while talking

  • Memory abnormalities

It is important to note that all the above listed symptoms may appear similar to those elicited by other more common disorders or medical syndromes. It is therefore essential to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and prompt treatment.

Causes of low grade glioma

Most cases of low grade gliomas occur without any known cause. There is not much that can be done or can be avoided to prevent the development of these tumors.

Some studies have indicated that there may be a link between some kinds of low-grade gliomas and certain genetic disorders like tuberous sclerosis and neurofibromatosis.

In children, more than 40 percent of all tumors affecting the brain and the spinal cord are low grade gliomas. Children affected by tuberous sclerosis are at a greater risk to forming gliomas. However, in most cases, there is spontaneous formation of tumors in children without any discernible cause.

In adults, primary low grade gliomas can be seen in those with a family history of eye tumors, tuberous sclerosis, or neurofibromatosis. In certain cases, they may develop as a side effect of radiation therapy carried out for treating other underlying tumors or cancers.

Diagnosis of low grade glioma

Besides an exhaustive neurological investigation, the doctor will order for the below listed diagnostic tests if he/she suspects the underlying presence of brain tumor:

  • A CT brain scan which is a type of specialized x-ray.

  • An MRI which provides clear pictures of the brain and the tumors/low grade gliomas.

  • An EEG to measure the brain’s electrical activity and functioning.

Treatment of low grade glioma

Treatment of low grade gliomas is determined after carefully analyzing the general health of the patient, age, the location and size of the tumor, the accompanying symptoms, medical history of the patient, and presence of any underlying diseases.

  • If needed, the doctor may prescribe anticonvulsant drugs to manage seizures.

  • Steroid medications may be given to control and limit any brain inflammation.

  • If the tumor hampers brain functioning, then the doctor may opt for surgical removal of the low grade glioma so as to enhance and maintain neurological functions.

  • Low grade gliomas that cannot be surgically reached or treated can be eliminated via radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

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