There are many types of brain diseases, ranging from injuries and infections to brain tumors and dementia. They can impact your ability to function and carry out daily activities. Outcomes vary widely depending on the type of brain disease, location and severity of the condition.
Your brain is the control center of your body. It regulates growth, development and bodily functions. All of your thoughts, feelings and actions begin there.
Your brain is part of your nervous system. A network of nerves carries signals to your spinal cord and brain from your body and the outside world. Your brain processes the signals and sends responses back out through your spinal cord and nerves.
A wide range of diseases and disorders affect your brain. They can alter a person’s behavior, personality and their ability to process information and function. Many brain diseases impact a person’s capacity to carry out daily activities.
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There are many types, including hundreds, of rare brain diseases. The general categories of brain diseases include:
Autoimmune brain diseases occur when your body’s defenses attack a part of your brain, mistaking it for an invader. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most prominent of these. Like electrical wires, nerve cells have insulation covering them. Multiple sclerosis attacks this in your brain, spinal cord and the nerves going to your eyes. There are less common autoimmune brain diseases that mimic MS. There are others, like autoimmune encephalitis, which irritate your brain, causing confusion and involuntary movements.
Epilepsy is a tendency to have seizures. A seizure is an electrical storm in your brain, typically interfering with consciousness and causing convulsions (uncontrolled movements). Some seizures can be subtle — only causing clouding of consciousness or uncontrolled movements of one part of your body.
Infections occur when various types of germs invade your brain or its protective coverings. Meningitis happens when your protective coverings are infected. It often causes headaches, confusion and a very stiff neck. Sometimes, it’s necessary to do a spinal tap to find out which germ is causing an infection so the right antibiotics can be given.
Mental, behavioral and emotional disorders can diminish a person’s quality of life and ability to function. Major types include:
Psychiatrists and psychologists generally treat mental illnesses. If your brain were a computer (and in some ways, it is), your mind would be like a program running in it. In other words, your mind is your brain’s “operating system.” Psychiatrists and psychologists are like computer programmers who try to figure out why this program is causing distress instead of working as it should.
Often, treatment involves both medications and therapy. People are sometimes hesitant to see a mental health specialist. But they shouldn’t be. Mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults.
Neurodegenerative disorders are often due to the accumulation of abnormal proteins in your brain. They include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), among many others. They’re most often slowly progressive and interfere with thought, memory, movement or some combination of these things. They’re more common in the elderly. Some run in families.
Neurodevelopmental disorders affect the growth and development of your brain, and are usually cared for by pediatric neurologists. Medical geneticists may determine whether a disorder is likely to be inherited. If it is, they provide family counseling. There are a large number of neurodevelopmental disorders, including:
Strokes occur when a blood vessel supplying your brain with the nutrients it needs gets blocked or, less often, bursts. Either way, the effects are sudden. Stroke damages part of your brain. This can lead to problems with speech, understanding, vision, strength, sensation or coordination. If enough of your brain is damaged by one or more strokes, it can cause dementia. Occasionally, seizures occur due to strokes.
Traumatic brain injuries include concussions and more serious brain injuries such as gunshot wounds. Brain injury may happen due to falls, auto accidents, sports injuries or domestic violence (including child abuse). Repeated head trauma can cause brain scarring, leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Neurosurgeons may care for penetrating injuries and bleeding. Psychologists, psychiatrists and speech therapists may be consulted for behavioral and thinking problems after brain injuries. Neurologists often care for the injured as well.
Brain tumors can develop when cancer spreads from other parts of your body, such as your lung, breast or colon. Or they can form in your brain tissue itself or its coverings.
Unlike tumors spreading from other places in your body, tumors arising in your brain itself or brain coverings are considered benign if they grow slowly and don’t invade surrounding brain tissue. They’re considered malignant if they grow rapidly and invade surrounding brain tissue.
Astrocytoma is a common tumor arising from your brain itself. Meningioma is a common tumor arising from the coverings of your brain.
Brain diseases affect many people, but the occurrence of individual diseases varies widely. For example, in the U.S.:
Some common causes and risk factors of brain disease are:
Healthcare providers aren’t sure why some types of brain diseases happen. For example, about 60% of epilepsy cases have no known cause (idiopathic). Researchers are actively investigating diseases of the brain to better understand their causes and how to treat them.
Your brain controls all of your bodily functions. If your brain is injured or diseased, any of those functions can be impacted depending on the type, location and severity of the condition. You may experience general symptoms, such as:
Brain diseases may also show up as changes in:
When in doubt, contact your healthcare provider.
The most important step in diagnosis is the history and physical exam. During the physical exam, the emphasis is on the neurologic exam. It includes motor, sensory, reflex and thinking tests. The findings of this examination direct what other tests may be needed.
Other testing may include:
Beyond prevention, treatment varies with the kind of disorder. Some disorders can be cured (for example, taking an antibiotic for meningitis or removing a tumor). Others can be treated, but not cured (such as taking medications to control the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or to prevent seizures). Others must be accommodated to (such as using a cane or walker to cope with some balance disorders).
Treatments your healthcare provider may use include:
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” A healthy diet and activity, along with controlling medical illnesses (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol), and making sure you’re vaccinated against infections of the brain and nervous system can avoid preventable brain illness.
Here are some general guidelines that may reduce your risk for preventable brain diseases:
Some brain diseases will heal without permanent damage. Others may resolve but leave deficiencies in your mental or physical abilities. Some are lifelong, progressive conditions. Your healthcare provider will work with you to manage your symptoms and help you preserve or regain as much function as possible.
Early treatment for brain injuries and diseases is essential. Have your healthcare provider check out any head injuries, even minor ones. Also, notify your healthcare provider if you experience any unusual changes in your:
Call 911 if you have any warning signs of a stroke. These are usually painless and cause sudden changes such as:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
There are many types of brain diseases. Some are quite common, while others occur in only a few hundred people each year. Your healthcare provider will evaluate you closely to determine what’s causing your symptoms and provide an individualized treatment plan. If you or a family member have experienced a brain injury or disease, follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for treatment and long-term management. Therapy, medications, lifestyle changes and proper support can help you live the fullest life possible.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/26/2022.
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