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Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version

General Information About Childhood Craniopharyngioma

The PDQ childhood brain tumor treatment summaries are organized primarily according to the World Health Organization classification of nervous system tumors.[1,2] For a full description of the classification of nervous system tumors and a link to the corresponding treatment summary for each type of brain tumor, refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview.

Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50%.[3] Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors require close follow-up because cancer therapy side effects may persist or develop months or years after treatment. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.)

Primary brain tumors are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Brain tumors are classified according to histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are important factors that affect treatment and prognosis.

Craniopharyngiomas are uncommon pediatric brain tumors. They are believed to be congenital in origin, arising from ectodermal remnants, Rathke cleft, or other embryonal epithelium, and often occur in the suprasellar region with an intrasellar portion. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) imaging are used to diagnose craniopharyngiomas, but histologic confirmation is generally required before treatment. The treatment of newly diagnosed craniopharyngiomas may include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and/or cyst drainage. The treatment of recurrent craniopharyngiomas depends on the initial treatment used. The 5-year and 10-year survival rates, regardless of treatment given, are higher than 90%.


Craniopharyngiomas are relatively uncommon, accounting for about 6% of all intracranial tumors in children.[4-6]

No predisposing factors have been identified.


Drawing of the inside of the brain showing the lateral ventricle, third ventricle, and fourth ventricle, cerebrum, choroid plexus, hypothalamus, pineal gland, pituitary gland, optic nerve, tentorium, cerebellum, brain stem, pons, medulla, and spinal cord.
Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain. The tentorium separates the cerebrum from the cerebellum. The infratentorium (posterior fossa) is the region below the tentorium that contains the brain stem, cerebellum, and fourth ventricle. The supratentorium is the region above the tentorium and denotes the region that contains the cerebrum.

Clinical Presentation

Craniopharyngiomas occur in the region of the pituitary gland, and endocrine function may be affected. Additionally, their closeness to the optic nerves and chiasm may result in vision problems. Some patients present with obstructive hydrocephalus caused by tumor growth within the third ventricle. Rarely, tumors may extend into the posterior fossa, and patients may present with headache, diplopia, ataxia, and hearing loss.[7]

Diagnostic Evaluation

CT scans and MRI scans are often diagnostic for childhood craniopharyngiomas, with most tumors demonstrating intratumoral calcifications and a solid and cystic component. MRI of the spinal axis is not routinely performed.

Craniopharyngiomas without calcification may be confused with other tumor types, such as germinomas or hypothalamic/chiasmatic astrocytomas, and biopsy or resection is required to confirm the diagnosis.[8]

Apart from imaging, patients often undergo endocrine testing and formal vision examination, including visual-field evaluation.


Regardless of the treatment modality, long-term event-free survival is approximately 85% in children,[5,6] with 5-year and 10-year overall survival rates higher than 90%.[9-12]


  1. Louis DN, Ohgaki H, Wiestler OD, et al., eds.: WHO Classification of Tumours of the Central Nervous System. 4th ed. Lyon, France: IARC Press, 2007.
  2. Louis DN, Ohgaki H, Wiestler OD, et al.: The 2007 WHO classification of tumours of the central nervous system. Acta Neuropathol 114 (2): 97-109, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Smith MA, Altekruse SF, Adamson PC, et al.: Declining childhood and adolescent cancer mortality. Cancer 120 (16): 2497-506, 2014. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Bunin GR, Surawicz TS, Witman PA, et al.: The descriptive epidemiology of craniopharyngioma. J Neurosurg 89 (4): 547-51, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Karavitaki N, Wass JA: Craniopharyngiomas. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am 37 (1): 173-93, ix-x, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Garnett MR, Puget S, Grill J, et al.: Craniopharyngioma. Orphanet J Rare Dis 2: 18, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Zhou L, Luo L, Xu J, et al.: Craniopharyngiomas in the posterior fossa: a rare subgroup, diagnosis, management and outcomes. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 80 (10): 1150-4, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Rossi A, Cama A, Consales A, et al.: Neuroimaging of pediatric craniopharyngiomas: a pictorial essay. J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab 19 (Suppl 1): 299-319, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Muller HL: Childhood craniopharyngioma. Recent advances in diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Horm Res 69 (4): 193-202, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Müller HL: Childhood craniopharyngioma--current concepts in diagnosis, therapy and follow-up. Nat Rev Endocrinol 6 (11): 609-18, 2010. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Sanford RA, Muhlbauer MS: Craniopharyngioma in children. Neurol Clin 9 (2): 453-65, 1991. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Zacharia BE, Bruce SS, Goldstein H, et al.: Incidence, treatment and survival of patients with craniopharyngioma in the surveillance, epidemiology and end results program. Neuro Oncol 14 (8): 1070-8, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: January 15, 2015