Brainstem Gliomas Treatment & Management

Updated: Sep 27, 2022
  • Author: Douglas E Ney, MD; Chief Editor: Stephen L Nelson, Jr, MD, PhD, FAACPDM, FAAN, FAAP, FANA  more...
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Medical Care

Treatment of brainstem gliomas has been frustrating. To date, most trials (particularly in the pediatric population) have failed to show a significant benefit to any systemic agent beyond radiotherapy.

Adjuvant chemotherapy is not often used in children because efficacy has not been proven. Data have suggested that preradiation chemotherapy may improve survival in pediatric diffuse intrinsic brainstem gliomas. [16]  The effectiveness of combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy has not been exstensively evaluated in adults. However, retrospective data suggest that upfront temozolomide along with radiation may improve survival in adult patients. [2] The effectiveness of chemotherapy at relapse is uncertain, but it may benefit some patients.

Chemotherapy options, when considered for use in brainstem gliomas, may include conventional agents such as temozolomide and carboplatin/vincristine. Antiangiogenesis agents such as bevacizumab have been used with varying success in supratentorial glioblastomas, however, their role in brainstem gliomas is less clear. Small studies have suggested that a small number of patients may benefit in the shortmterm, but the outcomes are worse than for supratentorial gliomas. [2]  Patients and families should be encouraged to enroll on clinical trials whenever possible.

Focal radiotherapy is the cornerstone of treatment of brainstem gliomas and can improve or stabilize the patient's condition. [1] The conventional dose of radiotherapy ranges from 54 to 60 Gy, and is considered standard upfront therapy. 

Response to radiotherapy depends on several variables, such as tumor location, histologic type, and response to early treatment. Patients who underwent radiation therapy for exophytic tumors have been reported to have better survival rates than those treated for tumors without an exophytic component.

Radiotherapy should be administered to any patient with significant and progressive neurologic symptoms. Some adult patients with a tectal or cervicomedullary lesion, or with mild symptoms of long duration, may be candidates for observation alone; radiotherapy can be reserved for patients with clear evidence of tumor progression.


Surgical Care

Surgical resection is performed in conjunction with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both. Surgery is most appropriate in the following cases:

  • Tumors of the cervicomedullary junction

  • Dorsal exophytic tumors protruding into the fourth ventricle

  • Cystic tumors

  • Enhancing tumors with clear margins that exert a space-occupying effect

  • Benign tumors (ie, those with slow clinical progression)

Follow-up neuroimaging with MRI (unless contraindicated) is recommended within 72 hours after surgery and every 2-3 months to monitor response to therapy and progression of disease. This should be considered standard care for these patients.


Ancillary Procedures

Patients with hydrocephalus may require ventriculostomy or ventriculoperitoneal shunting for symptomatic relief.

Patients with difficulties in swallowing and diminished gag reflex may need feeding by gastrostomy, such as percutaneous esophagogastrostomy (PEG).

Those patients who have had multiple upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, or altered voice may need postoperative ventilatory assistance.



Consultation with the following may prove helpful:

  • Neuro-oncologist: The neuro-oncologist should be the primary physician supervising the care of these patients. If a neuro-oncologist is not available, a medical oncologist with expertise in treating brain tumors may be consulted for guidance. Otherwise, the patient should be referred to a reputable institution that specializes in the care of patients with CNS neoplasms.

  • Neurosurgeon: The treating neurosurgeon should have significant experience in resection of CNS neoplasms.

  • Radiation oncologist: Physicians with expertise in central nervous sytem radiation should be consulted, when available.

  • Neuropathologist

  • Neuroradiologist

  • Neuropsychologist for pretreatment and posttreatment evaluations, when clinically indicated

  • Rehabilitation medicine specialist