23 June 2017

Childhood chemo may have lasting effects on memory

Childhood cancer survivors who had chemotherapy may end up with certain types of thinking and memory problems in adulthood.


Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells, but may also affect normal cells in the blood, mouth, intestinal tract, nose, nails, vagina, and hair, leading to unpleasant side effects. 

It is hard to predict how a child's body will react to chemotherapy as effects differ from child to child, and it is not an easy process to go through.

Furthermore, childhood cancer survivors who had chemotherapy may have certain types of thinking and memory problems as young adults, a small study suggests.

The study was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Belgian researchers assessed 31 young adults who had undergone chemotherapy. They were at an average age of slightly over 6 when they had the treatment. The researchers compared them with a control group of young adults who hadn't received chemotherapy.

Effects on memory

Both groups had similar scores on tests of long-term memory and ability to concentrate. Those are skills that developed before the cancer survivors underwent chemotherapy, the researchers said.

But compared to the control group, the cancer survivors had poorer thinking flexibility and short-term memory. These skills develop at a later age, the researchers explained.

Cancer under the age of 15 years is a rare occurrence in South Africa – between 800 to 1 000 reported cases of cancer annually, Health24 stated. Chances of survival are as high as 77% if it is detected and treated early.

"Tests that require quick switching between tasks or remembering new information for a short amount of time were clearly more difficult for former cancer patients. The developmental stage of the brain at the start of the cancer treatment probably plays a decisive role," said Iris Elens, a psychiatrist in training, and Rudi D'Hooge, a professor at the University of Leuven.

The researchers also measured levels of protein called p-Tau in the patients' brain fluid. The protein is part of the internal structure of nerve cells.

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"Our team collected samples of brain fluid during the cancer treatment. We analysed the p-Tau levels to measure the damage to the brain cells. We found that high concentrations of p-Tau predict cognitive problems at a later age," D'Hooge said.

"If we systematically measure these p-Tau levels in the future we can offer specific help to children with high values," Elens said.

"With early coaching aimed at the most relevant functions we can prevent problems that would otherwise manifest 10 to 15 years after the treatment."

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