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The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (CBTRUS) obtained 5 years of incidence data (1990-1994)--including reports on all primary brain and CNS tumors--from 11 collaborating state cancer registries. Data were available for 20,765 tumors located in the brain, meninges, and other CNS sites, including the pituitary and pineal glands. The average annual incidence was estimated at 11.5 cases per 100,000 person-years. The higher incidence of tumors in male patients (12.1 per 100,000 person-years) than in female patients (11.0 per 100,000 person-years) was statistically significant (P < 0.05); the higher incidence in whites (11.6 per 100,000 person-years) compared with blacks (7.8 per 100,000 person-years) was statistically significant (P < 0.05). The most frequently reported histologies were meningiomas (24.0%) and glioblastomas (22.6%). Higher rates for glioblastomas, anaplastic astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, anaplastic oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas, mixed gliomas, astrocytomas not otherwise specified, medulloblastomas, lymphomas, and germ cell tumors in male than in female patients were statistically significant (P < 0.05), with relative risks (RR) ranging from 1.3 to 3.4. Meningiomas were the only tumors with a significant excess in females (RR = 0.5). We noted higher occurrence rates in whites than in blacks for the following histologies: diffuse astrocytomas, anaplastic astrocytomas, glioblastomas, oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas, mixed gliomas, astrocytomas NOS, medulloblastomas, nerve sheath tumors, hemangioblastomas, and germ cell tumors, with RRs ranging from 1.5 to 3.4. Racial differences in occurrence rates were not observed for predominately benign meningiomas or pituitary tumors. This study represents the largest compilation of data on primary brain and CNS tumors in the United States. Standard reporting definitions and practices must be universally adopted to improve the quality and use of cancer registry data.