Diagnosing Brain and Central Nervous System Tumors

At the OHSU Brain Institute, our specialists are experts at diagnosing brain and central nervous system tumors. We use the latest technology, including advanced imaging techniques (CT scan, MR and other imaging types).

To diagnose a brain or central nervous system tumor, your doctor takes a complete medical history and does a thorough physical examination. You also have tests, including:

  • Neurological examination – your doctor tests your reflexes, muscle strength, eye and mouth movement, coordination and alertness.
  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) – an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to create horizontal and vertical images of organs and structures in your body.You can have a CT scan of any part of your body, including bones, muscles, fat and organs such as the brain. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – an imaging test that uses large magnets, radio waves and a computer to create detailed images of organs and structures in your body.
  • X-ray – an imaging test that uses energy beams to create images of organs and structures in your body on film.
  • Arteriogram (angiogram) – an X-ray that shows your blood vessels (arteries and veins). It can show blood vessels that are narrow or blocked. This test is used less than in the past because CT and MRI scans can be used instead.
  • Myelogram – an imaging test using dye injected into the spinal canal to make the spine show up clearly on X-rays.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture) – a test that measures pressure in the spinal canal (area around your spinal cord). It is also used to test the cerebrospinal fluid (fluid around the brain and spinal cord). Testing this fluid can show any infection or other problems.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) – an imaging test that shows how well your organs and tissues are working. A tiny amount of radioactive material is placed in your body before the scan. More of the material travels to areas of your body with higher chemical activity. This increased chemical activity could mean a disease is developing in that area. Because it detects chemical activity, a PET scan can find changes before doctors can see them on CT or MRI scans.
  • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) – an imaging test that shows how structures in the body are working (a regular MRI shows the shape of these structures). For example, MRS can show if there is more cell growth in certain areas of your brain. This could be a sign of a tumor growing in that area. MRS equipment is only available at health centers with advanced imaging technology, such as the OHSU Brain Institute.
  • Biopsy -– a procedure that takes a sample of tissue with a needle or during surgery to be looked at under a microscope.