These consist either of expanding masses (lumps or tumours), or of areas of shrinkage (atrophy) due to degeneration, or to loss of blood supply, usually from blockage of an artery.
Tumours All masses cause varying combinations of headache and vomiting – symptoms of raised pressure within the inexpansible bony box formed by the skull; general or localised epileptic ﬁts; weakness of limbs or disordered speech; and varied mental changes. Tumours may be primary, arising in the brain, or secondary deposits from tumours arising in the lung, breast or other organs. Some brain tumours are benign and curable by surgery: examples include meningiomas and pituitary tumours. The symptoms depend on the size and situation of the mass. Abscesses or blood clots (see HAEMATOMA) on the surface or within the brain may resemble tumours; some are removable. Gliomas ( see GLIOMA) are primary malignant tumours arising in the glial tissue (see GLIA) which despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy usually have a bad prognosis, though some astrocytomas and oligodendronogliomas are of low-grade malignancy. A promising line of research in the US (in the animal-testing stage in 2000) suggests that the ability of stem cells from normal brain tissue to ‘home in’ on gliomal cells can be turned to advantage. The stem cells were chemically manipulated to carry a poisonous compound (5-ﬂuorouracil) to the gliomal cells and kill them, without damaging normal cells. Around 80 per cent of the cancerous cells in the experiments were destroyed in this way.
Clinical examination and brain scanning (CT, or COMPUTED TOMOGRAPHY; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI) are safe, accurate methods of demonstrating the tumour, its size, position and treatability.
Strokes When a blood vessel, usually an artery, is blocked by a clot, thrombus or embolism, the local area of the brain fed by that artery is damaged (see STROKE). The resulting infarct (softening) causes a stroke. The cells die and a patch of brain tissue shrinks. The obstruction in the blood vessel may be in a small artery in the brain, or in a larger artery in the neck. Aspirin and other anti-clotting drugs reduce recurrent attacks, and a small number of people beneﬁt if a narrowed neck artery is cleaned out by an operation – endarterectomy. Similar symptoms develop abruptly if a blood vessel bursts, causing a cerebral haemorrhage. The symptoms of a stroke are sudden weakness or paralysis of the arm and leg of the opposite side to the damaged area of brain (HEMIPARESIS), and sometimes loss of half of the ﬁeld of vision to one side (HEMIANOPIA). The speech area is in the left side of the brain controlling language in right-handed people. In 60 per cent of lefthanders the speech area is on the left side, and in 40 per cent on the right side. If the speech area is damaged, diﬃculties both in understanding words, and in saying them, develops (see DYSPHASIA).
Degenerations (atrophy) For reasons often unknown, various groups of nerve cells degenerate prematurely. The illness resulting is determined by which groups of nerve cells are aﬀected. If those in the deep basal ganglia are aﬀected, a movement disorder occurs, such as Parkinson’s disease, hereditary Huntington’s chorea, or, in children with birth defects of the brain, athetosis and dystonias. Modern drugs, such as DOPAMINE drugs in PARKINSONISM, and other treatments can improve the symptoms and reduce the disabilities of some of these diseases.
Drugs and injury Alcohol in excess, the abuse of many sedative drugs and artiﬁcial brain stimulants – such as cocaine, LSD and heroin (see DEPENDENCE) – can damage the brain; the eﬀects can be reversible in early cases. Severe head injury can cause localised or diﬀuse brain damage (see HEAD INJURY).
Cerebral palsy Damage to the brain in children can occur in the uterus during pregnancy, or can result from rare hereditary and genetic diseases, or can occur during labour and delivery. Severe neurological illness in the early months of life can also cause this condition in which stiﬀ spastic limbs, movement disorders and speech defects are common. Some of these children are learning-disabled.
Dementias In older people a diﬀuse loss of cells, mainly at the front of the brain, causes ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE – the main feature being loss of memory, attention and reasoned judgement (dementia). This aﬀects about 5 per cent of the over-80s, but is not simply due to ageing processes. Most patients require routine tests and brain scanning to indicate other, treatable causes of dementia.
Response to current treatments is poor, but promising lines of treatment are under development. Like Parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly over many years. It is uncommon for these diseases to run in families. Multiple strokes can cause dementia, as can some organic disorders such as cirrhosis of the liver.
Infections in the brain are uncommon. Viruses such as measles, mumps, herpes, human immunodeﬁciency virus and enteroviruses may cause ENCEPHALITIS – a diﬀuse inﬂammation (see also AIDS/HIV).
Bacteria or viruses may infect the membrane covering the brain, causing MENINGITIS. Viral meningitis is normally a mild, self-limiting infection lasting only a few days; however, bacterial meningitis – caused by meningococcal groups B and C, pneumococcus, and (now rarely) haemophilus – is a life-threatening condition. Antibiotics have allowed a cure or good control of symptoms in most cases of meningitis, but early diagnosis is essential. Severe headaches, fever, vomiting and increasing sleepiness are the principal symptoms which demand urgent advice from the doctor, and usually admission to hospital. Group B meningococcus is the commonest of the bacterial infections, but Group C causes more deaths. A vaccine against the latter has been developed and has reduced the incidence of cases by 75 per cent.
If infection spreads from an unusually serious sinusitis or from a chronically infected middle ear, or from a penetrating injury of the skull, an abscess may slowly develop. Brain abscesses cause insidious drowsiness, headaches, and at a late stage, weakness of the limbs or loss of speech; a high temperature is seldom present. Early diagnosis, conﬁrmed by brain scanning, is followed by antibiotics and surgery in hospital, but the outcome is good in only half of aﬀected patients.
Cerebral oedema Swelling of the brain can occur after injury, due to engorgement of blood vessels or an increase in the volume of the extravascular brain tissue due to abnormal uptake of water by the damaged grey (neurons) matter and white (nerve ﬁbres) matter. This latter phenomenon is called cerebral oedema and can seriously aﬀect the functioning of the brain. It is a particularly dangerous complication following injury because sometimes an unconscious person whose brain is damaged may seem to be recovering after a few hours, only to have a major relapse. This may be the result of a slow haemorrhage from damaged blood vessels raising intracranial pressure, or because of oedema of the brain tissue in the area surrounding the injury. Such a development is potentially lethal and requires urgent specialist treatment to alleviate the rising intracranial pressure: osmotic agents (see OSMOSIS) such as mannitol or frusemide are given intravenously to remove the excess water from the brain and to lower intracranial pressure, buying time for deﬁnitive investigation of the cranial damage.