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After Brain Cancer

Supporting psychological needs of survivors and their families

March 21, 2012 | Leigh MacMillan

About 75 percent of children now survive at least five years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, thanks to advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, the treatments that cure the cancer often leave survivors facing long-term neurological complications.

“A child’s ability to understand, communicate and process information may be greatly compromised, resulting in learning problems, poor school performance and lowered self-esteem, any of which can lead to depression or other psychological problems,” says Bruce Compas, Ph.D., Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development and a researcher at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

With funding support from the Justin and Valere Potter Foundation, Compas is leading a research and clinical program that examines the nature and course of cognitive problems and provides psychological supportive care for children with brain tumors and their families. The program’s goal is “to develop better interventions that will improve the lives of children who survive brain cancer,” he says.

In the first comprehensive review on the neurocognitive effects of treatment in children with brain tumors, Compas and colleagues reported that most studies examined the children two or more years after their treatment, and that almost none had tested cognitive function prior to surgery.

The Vanderbilt research team, directed by Jennifer Thigpen, Ph.D., is enrolling children with brain tumors to monitor and track neurocognitive function before, during and after treatment. In close collaboration with pediatric neurosurgeon Matthew Pearson, M.D., the investigators have tested 45 out of 46 patients to date before surgery and will continue to follow these patients for two years.

In another study, spearheaded by graduate student Kristen Robinson, the group is using functional MRI to identify cognitive changes. So far, they have found clear functional differences in the brains of the cancer survivors compared to controls, Compas says.

The team is also gearing up for its first interventional study. In collaboration with Sohee Park, Ph.D., Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology, the researchers will use computerized “brain fitness programs” – memory, attention and concentration tasks – to attempt to change the course of the cognitive decline in children with brain tumors and monitor these changes using brain imaging technology.

“It’s one thing to say these kids have problems, and we can tell you where in the brain the problems are,” Compas says, “…now let’s do something about it and see if we can change the outcomes for these childhood brain cancer survivors.”