Project Name:  Neurobehavioral Correlates of Learning and Memory in Child Cancer Survivors


Today, children are surviving pediatric cancer at unprecedented rates, making it one of modern medicine’s true success stories. However, we are increasingly becoming aware of the negative impact that the early cancer experience has on the developing brain. In addition to the enormous stress and insecurity about wellbeing, treatments and procedures associated with pediatric cancer care are arduous and known to be neurotoxic. Despite this significant insult to the developing brain, very little research examines brain and behavioral development in young survivors of pediatric cancer. This is a significant gap given high rates of enduring neurocognitive dysfunction reported in adult survivors of childhood cancer, and the need for early interventions that alter the course of brain development.


This fellowship project was designed to identify neurobehavioral correlates of learning and memory in young (ages 6-9) cancer survivors. Based on preclinical findings that the hippocampus is sensitive to early stress as well as chemo- and radiation therapy, we will test the novel hypothesis that hippocampal-dependent learning and memory systems are impaired in child cancer survivors. Results should provide novel insight into neurobiological mechanisms and inspire new psychosocial theories.


As learning and memory are critical components of quality of life, intelligence, emotional wellbeing, and academic achievement, this work has widespread implications for the expanding population of childhood cancer survivors. This project is an important first step in developing early preventive interventions to reduce major unintended consequences for the 13,500 children who are diagnosed with cancer each year in the US.


Summer 2018 Update from Dr. Marusak: MCRF funding has been extremely helpful for my transition from a career focused on mental health and brain development to childhood cancer and survivorship issues. Through MCRF funding, I have applied the tools of neuroscience to understand the effects of pediatric cancer and its treatment on brain development in children. This has led to a first-author review article on the neurodevelopmental consequences of pediatric cancer (Marusak et al., Neuropsychology Review) and several articles in preparation on the effects of pediatric cancer on learning, memory, and emotion systems in the brain. Pilot data from my MCRF-supported research have led to obtaining a Supportive Care Research Grant as Principal Investigator(PI) from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, to test whether a novel psychosocial intervention that incorporates martial arts, Kids Kicking Cancer, can build more resilient brains in kids with cancer. I have also applied as PI for a K award from the NIH and hope to transition into a faculty position in the coming year.