The p53 tumor suppressor gene (TP53) is the most frequently altered gene in human cancer and is also found mutated in several types of brain tumors. Loss of p53 function plays a central role in the development of cancer. The characterization of the biochemical pathways by which p53 alteration triggers tumorigenesis is the foundation for the design of novel therapeutic approaches. Investigations of the intracellular mechanisms at the origin of p53 tumor suppressive functions have shown that p53 is a transcription factor able to sense a variety of cellular insults and induce a dual response: cell growth arrest/senescence or apoptosis. Less well studied are p53's influences on extracellular events such as tumor angiogenesis, immunology and invasion. Here, we review these findings and specifically discuss their implications for brain tumor genesis, molecular diagnosis and prognosis. Of clinical importance are the findings that brain tumors with wild type (wt) or mutant p53 status may respond differently to radiation therapy and that novel therapeutic strategies using TP53 gene transfer or specifically targeting tumor cells with mutated p53 are being evaluated in clinical trials.