What is a brainstem glioma?

A pediatric brainstem glioma is a tumor that forms in the tissues of the brainstem. Gliomas are formed from glial cells. Glial cells in the brain hold nerve cells in place, bring food and oxygen to the nerve cells and help protect nerve cells from infection.

There are two type of brainstem gliomas in children:

A fast-growing tumor that develops in the section of the brainstem called the pons. The pons is the portion of the brainstem that controls breathing, heart rate and other vital functions.

A slow-growing tumor that forms outside of the pons and is in only one area of the brainstem. 

Signs and symptoms

Is it a brainstem glioma?

The signs and symptoms of a pediatric brainstem glioma are not the same in every child and can depend on the following:

  • Where the tumor forms

  • The size of the tumor and if it has spread

  • How fast the tumor grows

  • Your child’s age and stage of development

Symptoms might include:

  • Trouble with eye movement (eyes turn inward)

  • Vision problems

  • Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Unusual sleepiness

  • Loss of ability to move one side of the face or body

  • Loss of balance or trouble walking

  • More/less energy than usual

  • Changes in behavior

  • Trouble learning in school

Pediatric brainstem glioma diagnosis

Your child’s doctor will do a full physical exam and take a detailed medical history. Additional tests could include:

If the MRI scan looks like a focal brainstem glioma, a tissue biopsy might be done while your child is under anesthesia. 

10 to 20 percent of all childhood brainstem gliomas are diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPG), which are highly aggressive and difficult-to-treat tumors found at the base of the brain. DIPG are diagnosed through the MRI.

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UW Health Kids
Our pediatric experts have served the special needs of children for more than 100 years. We focus on each child’s unique needs and offer social and emotional support to help you and your child face even the most complex condition. Our long history includes the creation of medical advances that save lives around the world. Together, we get your child back to health and enjoying being a kid.


A plan tailored to your child’s condition

Treatment for DIPG

Because a DIPG cannot be removed surgically, radiation therapy is recommended to temporarily stop the tumor from growing. While many studies are underway to better understand the biology of a diffuse brainstem glioma, it is currently considered fatal. 

Fighting pediatric cancer and blood disorders

The UW Carbone Cancer Center offers the most advanced treatment options. Our pediatric cancer and blood disorder experts are national research leaders. We test new therapies and continue to work on therapies for pediatric cancer and blood disorders. For many children with rare or hard-to-treat conditions, clinical trials provide new options.

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Care for your child

UW Health Kids | Carbone Cancer Center experts are dedicated to diagnosing and treating all infants, children and adolescents with cancer.

Our pediatric oncologists are part of the UW Carbone Cancer Center, which is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. This designation means that the doctors taking care of your child are experts in cancer treatment, research and education.

At American Family Children’s Hospital, you will find a friendly, child-centered environment. Our hospital is designed with relaxing spaces and areas where children are encouraged to play.

Meet our team

Experts you can trust

Your child’s care is our top priority and we understand the unique needs they have. Your child’s team will include:

  • Oncologists (cancer doctors)

  • Hematologists (blood disease doctors)

  • Nurse practitioners

  • Child life specialists

  • Pain management specialists

  • Physical, occupational and speech therapists

  • Radiologists and radiation technologists

  • Social workers

  • Surgeons

Pediatric hematology and oncology
Radiation oncology

Patient and support services

You’re never alone

When your child needs hospitalization, they will be admitted to American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wis.

Child life specialists help your child and family cope with any fears and anxieties. The American Family Children's Hospital patient and family visitor guide features information about:

  • Hero beads

  • Hospital school

  • Positive Image Center

  • Restoring Hope Transplant House (for blood and bone marrow transplant)

  • Spiritual care services

  • Tyler's Place (sibling child care)

Additional resources

Pediatric cancer services

With our expertise comes compassion. Our team considers you and your child part of our family. We will be by your side every step of the way. From diagnosis through treatment and into adulthood, we will care for your child as if they are our own.

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