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Youngest Bone Marrow Transplant Patients at Highest Risk of Cognitive Decline

Youngest Bone Marrow Transplant Patients at Highest Risk of Cognitive Decline

Toddlers who undergo total body irradiation in preparation for a bone marrow transplant are at higher risk for a decline in IQ, according to a new study.

Researchers at  St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital tracked the IQ scores of 170 St. Jude patients before and for five years after a transplant. The patients ranged in age from four months to 23 years old.

The researchers found that the procedure had little lasting impact on the IQ scores on most of the patients.

“For the great majority of patients, these findings provide reassurance that transplantation will not have a significant negative impact on cognitive development,” said corresponding author Sean Phipps, Ph.D., chair of the St. Jude Department of Psychology.

“We have also identified a high-risk group of younger patients who may benefit from more intensive interventions, including developmental stimulation and other rehabilitative therapies designed to prevent a decline in intellectual functioning and aid in recovery.”

The high-risk group includes patients whose transplants occurred when they were three years or younger and involved total body irradiation (TBI), he noted.

TBI is used to prepare patients for transplantation by killing remaining cancer cells and protecting the transplanted cells from their immune systems, he explained.

TBI is associated with a range of short-term and long-term side effects. At St. Jude, therapeutic advances have reduced the use of TBI in bone marrow transplantations, according to hospital officials.

Before transplantation, the average IQ scores of all patients in this study were in the normal range, according to the researchers. One year after transplantation, average IQ scores of patients aged five and younger had declined sharply.

But scores of most patients rebounded in subsequent years. Five years after the procedure, IQ scores for most patients, even the youngest survivors, had largely recovered and were within the range of normal intelligence.

Patients in the high-risk group were the lone exception, according to the researchers.

IQ scores of patients who were both aged three or younger when their transplants occurred and received TBI failed to recover from the first-year decline. Five years after transplantation, these survivors had average IQ scores in the low-normal range of intelligence.

Their scores were more than 16 points lower than the scores of patients who were just as young when their transplants occurred but did not receive TBI, according to the study’s findings.

Of the 72 patients in the study whose transplants included TBI, researchers found there was a long-term impact on intellectual functioning only in the patients who were three or younger at transplantation.

“The significant first-year decline reflects the intensity of transplantation, which our results suggest leads to greater disruption in development in the youngest children than was previously recognized,” said the study’s first author, Victoria Willard, Ph.D., a St. Jude psychology department research associate.

These findings are good news for most parents whose children must undergo transplantation and provide another reason for hope of good long-term outcomes, according to the researchers.

“For those whose children are in the newly recognized high-risk group, increased attention and activities designed to stimulate cognitive development may help to prevent reduced IQ following transplantation,” Phipps said.

The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Source: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Doctor with young patient photo by shutterstock.

Youngest Bone Marrow Transplant Patients at Highest Risk of Cognitive Decline

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Youngest Bone Marrow Transplant Patients at Highest Risk of Cognitive Decline. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.