One year after starting the drug methylphenidate, young cancer survivors scored better on tests of sustained attention, social skills, and behavior than a group of unmedicated survivors, according to a multicenter trial led by St.Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis,Tennessee.1
Methylphenidate is widely used to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and is marketed under several brand names, including Ritalin and Concerta. This study is the first to show that the drug offers some childhood cancer survivors long-term relief from attention and behavior changes. Although the drug did not result in a significant gain in measured academic skills, many parents noted that their children's grades improved because they were better able to plan ahead and to complete and return assignments, notes Heather Conklin, PhD, assistant member of the St. Jude Department of Psychology and the study's first author.
Nonpharmacological approaches should be pursued because only about half of young cancer survivors benefit from methylphenidate, Dr. Conklin adds, noting that she and colleagues are looking into new strategies.
The survivors in the study included those who had been treated for brain tumors and acute lymphoblastic leukemia with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy targeting the central nervous system. All of these treatments are linked to risk of attention loss, memory loss, and processing speed problems, which can impact survivors' ability to work and live independently.