Retinoblastoma is a rare type of eye cancer that typically develops in children under 5 years of age. It has a 5-year survival rate exceeding 95%, but until now, little has been known about long-term functional outcomes for these patients. Now, a new study finds that they have few cognitive or social setbacks in adulthood.

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The new study finds that survivors of childhood retinoblastoma do not experience cognitive or social setbacks in adulthood.

The study – led by Tara Brinkman, PhD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN – is published in the American Cancer Society’s journal Cancer.

According to the team, retinoblastoma represents around 6.1% of childhood cancer in children under 5. In the US, there are about 350 cases diagnosed each year.

Previous studies that have sought to report on cognitive function in survivors of childhood retinoblastoma have produced mixed results, say the researchers, who add that they have been limited by small sample sizes and “narrow assessments of cognitive abilities.”

Though most children with the condition are successfully cured, the team wanted to assess the long-term health of such survivors, because they are treated at such a young age with intensive therapies, putting them at risk for disease- and treatment-related effects later on.

In order to assess long-term health, the researchers studied a total of 69 adult survivors who were an average age of 33. They had all been treated for retinoblastoma an average of 31 years earlier.

Each of the participants completed cognitive evaluations and questionnaires, and from these, the team found that they performed normally on most cognitive and social measures.

However, the researchers did find that whole brain radiation treatment was linked with poorer performance on tasks of both short- and long-term verbal memory.

Interestingly, survivors who were diagnosed and treated before the age of 1 performed much better on measures of short- and long-term verbal memory, verbal learning and verbal reasoning abilities, compared with those diagnosed after the age of 1.

As to why they observed this, Brinkman suggests it may be “because the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information becomes more adept at processing verbal information following reduced visual input early in life.”

She says this “suggests the potential of the brain to adapt and reorganize following very early insult.”

Though their findings are significant, the team says they should be interpreted with caution, given the small sample size. An additional limitation to the research is that study participants may differ on cognitive and functional outcomes, compared with other survivors who did not participate, “thus introducing the potential for selection bias.”

Though she says more research is needed on this topic, Brinkman notes “this is the first study to report on long-term cognitive and social outcomes in adult survivors of retinoblastoma.”

“Importantly,” she adds, “we found that, as a whole, these survivors are doing quite well.”

A recent study suggested retinal tumors in young children are caused by a single genetic change. Researchers from that study said their findings demonstrate how some cells are “only a step away” from developing into a life-threatening malignancy.