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What is ATRT?

Central nervous system Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the brain.


Anatomy of the brain 


The supratentorial area (the upper part of the brain) contains the cerebrum, lateral ventricle and third ventricle (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), choroid plexus, pineal gland, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and optic nerve.


The posterior fossa/infratentorial area (the lower back part of the brain) contains the cerebellum, tectum, fourth ventricle, and brain stem (midbrain, pons, and medulla).


The skull and meninges protect the brain and spinal cord.


Central nervous system (CNS) atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (ATRT) is a very rare, fast-growing tumor that begins in the brain and spinal cord. It usually occurs in children aged three years and younger, although it can occur in older children and adults.

About half of these tumors form in the cerebellum or brain stem. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls movement, balance, and posture. The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, and eating. ATRT can also begin in other parts of the brain and spinal cord.

This summary describes the treatment of CNS atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumors. Treatment for metastatic brain tumors, which are tumors formed by cancer cells that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain, is not covered in this summary. 

Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults; however, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults. To learn about treatment for adults, see Adult Central Nervous System Tumors Treatment.

Certain genetic changes may increase the risk of atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor.

A risk factor is anything that increases the chance of getting a disease. Not every child with one or more of these risk factors will develop ATRT, and it will develop in some children who don't have a known risk factor. Talk with your child's doctor if you think your child may be at risk.

ATRT may be linked to changes in the tumor suppressor genes SMARCB1 or SMARCA4. Tumor suppressor genes make a protein that helps control when cells grow. Changes in the DNA of tumor suppressor genes like SMARCB1 or SMARCA4 may lead to cancer.

The changes in the SMARCB1 or SMARCA4 genes may be inherited (passed on from parents to offspring). When this gene change is inherited, tumors may form in two parts of the body at the same time (for example, in the brain and the kidney). For patients with ATRT, genetic counseling (a discussion with a trained professional about inherited diseases and a possible need for gene testing) may be recommended.

The signs and symptoms of atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor are not the same in every patient.

Signs and symptoms depend on the following:

  • the child's age

  • where the tumor has formed

Because ATRT is fast growing, signs and symptoms may develop quickly and get worse over a period of days or weeks. Signs and symptoms may be caused by ATRT or by other conditions. Check with your child's doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting

  • nausea and vomiting

  • unusual sleepiness or change in activity level

  • loss of balance, lack of coordination, or trouble walking

  • increase in head size (in infants)

CNS atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor is detected (or found) with tests that examine the brain and spinal cord.

In addition to asking about your child's personal and family health history and doing a physical exam, your child's doctor may perform the following tests and procedures:

  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the brain and spinal cord. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • Lumbar puncture: A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the spinal column. This is done by placing a needle between two bones in the spine and into the lining around the spinal cord to remove a sample of the CSF. The sample of CSF is checked under a microscope for signs of tumor cells. The sample may also be checked for the amounts of protein and glucose. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap.

  • SMARCB1 and SMARCA4 gene testing: A laboratory test in which a sample of blood or tissue is tested for certain changes in the SMARCB1 and SMARCA4 genes.


Craniotomy: An opening is made in the skull and a piece of the skull is removed to show part of the brain.

Childhood ATRT is diagnosed using a biopsy, and the tumor may be removed in the same surgery.

If doctors think there might be a brain tumor, a biopsy may be done to remove a sample of tissue. For brain tumors, the biopsy can be done by removing part of the skull or making a small hole in the skull and using a needle or surgical device to remove a sample of tissue. Sometimes, when a needle is used, it is guided by a computer to remove the tissue sample. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor may remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery. The pathologist checks the cancer cells to find out the type of brain tumor. It is often difficult to completely remove ATRT because of where the tumor is in the brain and because it may already have spread at the time of diagnosis. The piece of skull is usually put back in place after the procedure.

The following test may be done on the sample of tissue that is removed:

Immunohistochemistry: A laboratory test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens (markers) in a sample of a patient’s tissue. The antibodies are usually linked to an enzyme or a fluorescent dye. After the antibodies bind to a specific antigen in the tissue sample, the enzyme or dye is activated, and the antigen can then be seen under a microscope. This type of test is used to help diagnose cancer and to help tell one type of cancer from another type of cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:

  • whether there are certain inherited gene changes

  • the age of the child

  • the amount of tumor remaining after surgery

  • whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord or to the kidney at the time of diagnosis

There is no standard staging system for central nervous system (CNS) atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT).

The process used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body is called staging. 

For treatment, this tumor is grouped as newly diagnosed or recurrent. Treatment depends on the following:

  • the age of the child

  • how much cancer remains after surgery to remove the tumor

  • whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the central nervous system (CNS)

  • the results of tests and procedures done to diagnose childhood CNS atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor

Results from the following procedure are also used to plan treatment:

  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs, such as the kidney, and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later. This procedure is done to check for tumors that may also have formed in the kidney.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT). Treatment for AT/RT is often within a clinical trial. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Children with atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating cancer in children.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other pediatric health care providers who are experts in treating children with central nervous system cancer and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. Other specialists may include:

  • pediatrician

  • pediatric neurosurgeon

  • radiation oncologist

  • neurologist

  • pediatric nurse specialist

  • rehabilitation specialist

  • psychologist

  • social worker

  • geneticist or genetic counselor

  • fertility specialist

Signs or symptoms caused by the tumor may begin before diagnosis. These signs or symptoms may continue for months or years. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about signs or symptoms caused by the tumor that may continue after treatment.

The following types of treatment may be used:

Surgery is used to diagnose and treat CNS atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor. To learn more about how this tumor is diagnosed, see the Diagnosis section.

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, most patients will be given chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Childhood central nervous system atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor is treated with systemic and intrathecal chemotherapy.

  • Systemic Chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach tumor cells throughout the body. Some oral chemotherapy drugs can cross the blood-brain barrier and reach the tumor. High doses of some chemotherapy drugs given into a vein can cross the blood-brain barrier and reach the tumor.

  • Intrathecal Chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. 

  • Combination chemotherapy uses more than one anticancer drug.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.

External radiation therapy may be given to the brain and spinal cord.

Because radiation therapy can affect growth and brain development in young children, especially children who are three years old or younger, the dose of radiation therapy may be lower than in older children.

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

High doses of chemotherapy are given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood-forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient and are frozen and stored. After the patient completes chemotherapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to block the action of specific enzymes, proteins, or molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Targeted therapy is being studied in the treatment of recurrent childhood central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor.


Immunotherapy helps a person's immune system fight cancer. Biomarker tests can be used to help predict your response to certain immunotherapy drugs.

  • Atezolizumab is an immunotherapy drug being studied in combination with targeted therapy to treat children who have a recurrent central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor that has the biomarker PD-L1.

Treatment for childhood central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumors may cause side effects.

For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Problems from cancer treatment that begin 6 months or later after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:

  • physical problems

  • changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory

  • second cancers (new types of cancer)

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. To learn more, see Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the website.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment of Childhood CNS Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor

There is no standard treatment for patients with central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor.

Because atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT) is fast-growing, a combination of treatments is usually given. After surgery to remove the tumor, treatments for AT/RT may include combinations of the following:

  • chemotherapy

  • radiation therapy

  • high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

Use the clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

Treatment of Recurrent Childhood CNS Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor

There is no standard treatment for children with recurrent childhood central nervous system atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor. Treatment may include the following:

  • radiation therapy.

  • palliative treatment to improve quality of life.

  • a clinical trial of targeted therapy.

  • a clinical trial of targeted therapy given with immunotherapy.

Learn More about Childhood CNS ATRT and Other Childhood Brain Tumors

This content is provided by the National Cancer Institute (
Source URL:
Source Agency: National Cancer Institute (NCI)
PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Central Nervous System Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <12/15/2023>.

Available at: Accessed <05/10/2024>. [PMID: 26389341]

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