What is the Difference Between Targeted and Whole Brain Radiation?

You are likely familiar with the idea of radiation therapy to treat brain tumors, but you may not be aware that there are different forms of radiation available. As you educate yourself about your treatment options, you may have come across the terms “whole brain radiation” and “targeted radiation.” It can be helpful to understand the differences between targeted and whole brain radiation, particularly if your doctor has recommended radiation therapy as part of your treatment plan.


How Does Radiation Therapy Treat Brain Tumors?

Brain tumors develop when cells begin to grow out of control. Radiation therapy interrupts the process by damaging the DNA within the cells, which may kill the cells directly, or it may slow their growth. Because the DNA is damaged, the irradiated cell will no longer be able to divide and create new tumor cells. The treatment goal may be to simply stop the growth of the tumor or to shrink it and eliminate it from the body. Radiation therapy may also be used after surgical removal of a brain tumor to eradicate any remaining cells.


What is the Difference Between Targeted and Whole Brain Radiation?

As the name implies, whole brain radiation therapy delivers a dose of radiation to the entire brain. Patients must undergo multiple treatment sessions – often 3-5 sessions per week over 2-3 weeks to achieve the total intended dose. Because the entire brain receives radiation, many patients can experience unpleasant side effects, like fatigue, nausea and cognitive impairment, which can often be severe.

By contrast, targeted radiation therapy treats just the area of interest, sparing healthy surrounding brain tissue. One example of targeted radiation is Gamma Knife radiosurgery, a form of stereotactic radiosurgery developed specifically for treating conditions of the brain, head and neck.

Using Gamma Knife radiosurgery, doctors can treat an area as precise as 0.15 mm, the width of two human hairs. As a result, patients experience fewer side effects than whole brain radiation. Additionally, the Gamma Knife radiosurgery technology uses nearly 200 individual beams of high-dose radiation to target an area, combining to have a therapeutic effect. This is why some patients only require a single treatment session, in contrast to the 10-15 sessions required for whole brain radiation.


What Conditions Can be Treated with Targeted and Whole Brain Radiation?

Whole brain radiation is typically used to treat metastatic brain cancer, which is cancer that has spread from other areas of the body. However, targeted radiation therapy can also treat metastatic brain cancer successfully while sparing healthy brain tissue. Targeted radiation therapy can also treat other conditions of the brain, head and neck, including:

Learn More About Targeted and Whole Brain Radiation

Hopefully, this information has helped you develop a better understanding of the differences between targeted and whole brain radiation. Whether your doctor has already recommended radiation therapy or you are simply exploring your treatment options, educating yourself is a powerful way to play an active role in your care moving forward. Use what you’ve learned here in your conversations with your doctor and be sure to bring up any lingering questions you may have.

If you would like to learn more about Gamma Knife radiosurgery as a treatment option for you, contact The Valley Gamma Knife Center and a Nurse Navigator will be glad to speak to you about possible next steps.

Anthony D’Ambrosio, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.N.S
Anthony D’Ambrosio, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.N.S
Dr. Anthony D’Ambrosio is a board-certified neurosurgeon that specializes in Neurosurgery, Stereotactic Radiosurgery, Gamma Knife Radiosurgery (GKRS) and more. He is the Director of Neurosurgery and Co-Director of the Gamma Knife Program at The Valley Hospital. Dr. D’Ambrosio is an expert in treating patients with trigeminal neuralgia, benign or malignant brain tumors, as well as many other neurological conditions.

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