While most Childhood Cancer patients who are diagnosed early enough do survive, the treatments received for their cancer can have long-lasting effects, including lingering cognitive problems.
Radiation treatment, for instance, targets growing cells, including brain cells, which is why children can have thinking problems later on.
A recent study, conducted on 68 survivors of acute Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), or Brain Cancer who were at least one year in remission since their treatment and who were experiencing memory or thinking problems.
The average age of the participants of the study was 12, and most had completed their cancer treatment about five years earlier. The participants were divided into two groups; one group received the computer training program, and the other was put on a “waitlist” to serve as a comparison.
The first group received training on the Cogmed Programme, which consisted of completing 25 at-home sessions of 30 to 45 minutes each over a period of 9 weeks. Each session included elements of visual-spatial games or working memory games. The group also received weekly coaching phone calls to offer them motivation to keep using the program and to get feedback. Some participants who were making slower progress took advantage of 5 extra sessions offered.
Around 90% of participants completed the program and the results were that the working memory, attention and processing speed of those in the Cogmed group had increased more than in the waitlist group. Parents also reported bigger reductions in their children’s “executive dysfunction,” and decision-making problems, after they had used the Cogmed programme.
According to Donald Mabbott of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, who was not part of the new study, these types of computerised games tax and stretch the working memory ability, requiring children to manipulate an object and hold it in their working memory, training the brain. This type of exercise gets the neurons in the brain to fire, thereby fostering growth of new white matter cells.
At a Glance
The many different ways your child’s brain automatically makes sense of things. When experts refer to cognition or to cognitive skills, they mean how your child thinks, knows, remembers, judges and problem-solves.
- Working memory helps kids hold on to information long enough to use it
- Working memory plays an important role in concentration and in following instructions
- Weak working memory skills can affect learning in various subject areas including reading and math
- Working memory is key to learning
Visual-Spatial Working Memory
This is the child’s ability to use his/her “mind’s eye” to hold on to visual information long enough to use it. Visual-spatial memory is like a camera in your child’s brain. It can take snapshots to help him/her do things like search through laundry to find a sock that matches one you’ve shown him/her. It helps your child recall where new things are and where he/she is in relation to them—for example, finding the bathroom in the middle of the night at a friend’s house without bumping into walls.
Functional MRIs were taken of the children in the Cogmed group while completing a memory task before and after the intervention. After the study, they appeared to have reduced activation in the language areas of the brain. Conklin said that this was because after using the computer program, their memory processing was “more efficient.”
While some Childhood Cancer survivors with attention or memory problems have had access to stimulant medications like Ritalin or have been able to attend in-person sessions with a therapist, such medications have side-effects and not everyone can travel regularly to attend such specialist therapy sessions.
This is what makes this type of at-home computer program so important. Although Cogmed has been commercially available for adults with brain injury or children with attention-deficit disorders for a while, it has never been used with Childhood Cancer survivors.
Unfortunately, Cogmed is a) not available in South Africa, and b) the programme costs between $1,000 and $1,500 (R13,364 and R20,455) for the training program and coaching sessions, which is beyond the budget of most of our Little Fighter Families.
It does make me think however, “Where are all of the Open Source designers with something similar?“
I remember when I was involved in Stroke Rehabilitation; there was a lot of information out there regarding forging new neural pathways… surely this must hold true for Childhood Cancer survivors with similar challenges too?
As the human brain is one of my passions, I will see whether I can find any further information on this subject – I have GOT to believe that there are many ways in which to stimulate a Childhood Cancer survivor’s brain that can easily be done at home and without spending thousands that one just does not have.