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Tools that help you learn about your brain function

If you or someone close to you notices you are having problems with thinking, learning, memory, or other brain functions, there are steps you can take.

Description automatically generatedSome childhood cancer survivors are at risk for cognitive late effects. These are problems with thinking skills that can happen months or years after cancer treatment is over. Treatments that may cause cognitive late effects include certain chemotherapy drugs, radiation to the brain, and surgery to remove brain tumors.

Ilayna Mehrtens, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Chicago, helps explain the different options.

A person in a white lab coat

Psychologist Ilayna Mehrtens, PhD, cares for adolescent and young adult patients at the University of Chicago.

What is a neurocognitive assessment?

The neurocognitive assessment looks at your memory, attention, thinking, and other brain functions. The word neurocognitive refers to the inner workings of the brain (neuro) involved with thinking, learning, attention, and memory (cognitive).

A neurocognitive assessment starts with an interview with a neuropsychologist. A neuropsychologist is an expert in the brain and how it relates to behavior.

They will ask you questions about your thinking and learning experiences from your childhood up to today. They may ask what school was like and how things are going now. The interview will also cover your medical history, including your mental health.

Then you will have a series of tests.

Different activities will look at how well you:

  • Remember things
  • Focus and pay attention
  • Solve problems
  • Make decisions
  • Use language
  • Make sense of things you see
  • Process information

You will use paper, pencil, and computers to take these tests. The activities may be puzzles and learning games. They often get harder as you go. It’s normal to become frustrated. The test is designed to make your brain work hard and to test your tolerance for frustration.

Some assessments take 1-2 hours. Some take place over a couple of days. Talk to your care team about the length of your test.

You will get results a few weeks after you take the test. The results will show your strengths and weaknesses. Then you and your care team can make a plan.

“When you have a better sense of what the problem is, it is easier to address it,” Mehrtens said.

In cases where neurocognitive assessment is not an option, there are other options. These include seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

How psychologists and psychiatrists can help

A psychologist can help screen for problems and develop a treatment plan. They can help you find ways to manage problems.

Sometimes anxiety and depression can add to brain function problems. Brain function may improve when anxiety and depression are treated.

In some cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy might be helpful. The word cognitive refers to how you think about a problem. Behavioral is how you respond through actions and behaviors.

Therapy helps you to recognize when you have certain thoughts and learn to respond in a healthy way. For example, if you make a mistake, you may think: “I am a failure. I never do anything right.” But, of course, that’s not true. Therapy encourages you to acknowledge the thought but choose a healthier response such as: “Everyone makes mistakes.”

If you are having more serious brain function problems, a psychiatrist may be helpful. A psychiatrist may prescribe medicine along with therapy.

If you are not sure if you have a problem that needs treatment, talk to your primary care provider or your survivorship care team. Keep track of new symptoms or events. Discuss them with your care team.

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