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Neuropsychol Rev. 2004 Mar;14(1):65-86.

A critical review of the clinical effects of therapeutic irradiation damage to the brain: the roots of controversy.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.


We critically examined the damaging affects of therapeutic irradiation by comparing results from cross-disciplinary studies of early- and late-delayed radiotherapy effects. Focus is attained by concentrating on clinical treatment issues (volume of brain, dose, timing of effects, age, modality types, and stereotactic treatment techniques), rather than on methodological means or problems, which is necessary to understand the mechanisms and characteristics of radiotherapy-induced behavioral dysfunction including cognition. We make observations and hypotheses about the actual risks from radiotherapy that could be informative in the treatment decision process, and which may lessen the concerns of some patients and their families about the risks they take when receiving radiation. Conditions that predispose to radiation injury are reviewed: (1) higher doses even to part of the brain versus lower doses to the whole brain, (2) combined treatment modalities, (3) malignancy itself, (4) radiation early during postnatal brain development, and (5) late-delayed effects (more than 3 years posttreatment). Current neurocognitive frameworks for understanding cognitive change over time in children and adults are summarized, along with the literature on effects of brain tumors and treatment on depression. No studies have as yet identified candidate brain regions that are more sensitive to radiotherapy. Two studies have provided early, preliminary evidence for a specific vulnerability of visual attention/memory to the early stage of late radiation damage. Furthermore, radiation effects appear severe only in a minority of patients. Risk is related to direct and indirect effects of cancer type, concurrent clinical factors, and premorbid risk factors.

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