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Marita Partanen: ‘We try to prevent neuropsychological problems early’

Cancer treatments can have a serious impact on a child’s development, says neuropsychologist dr. Marita Partanen, who came over from Canada to work at the Princess Máxima Center. ‘I’m convinced we can improve the quality of children’s lives by identifying and treating neuropsychological problems early.’
Treatment of child cancer can cause a drop in IQ or other so called neurocognitive skills. But it is possible to detect these problems early. Partanen: ‘Usually, as neuropsychologists, we do 5 to 6 hour assessments with children to identify possible impairments. Children with cancer need to be followed over a longer time to see how they develop. Growing up means changing. A neuropsychological monitoring program can be used to follow changes and growth over time. If doctors and neuropsychologists can start following children close to diagnosis, they can see risk factors more precisely. And do something if necessary.’

Changing brain structures
The other main focus of Partanen’s research is examining brain-imaging techniques. ‘Using modern MRI scanners with high resolution, we try to find abnormalities in the brain. If we discover specific cognitive problems that are related to brain function, we can do something so it doesn’t get worse.’ Research can help to find out what changes in the brain might lead to neurocognitive problems. Partanen: ‘How does the brain change because of the disease itself, treatment, or other factors? If you know the answers, you can choose the treatment that will give the best outcome for a specific child.’

Close link to clinical practice
Partanen works very closely together with doctors and other health care workers in the Máxima. ‘Our type of research cannot be done without a very close link to what happens in the hospital. This is how we get our research questions. But it’s a two way street. The things we discover are only useful if we translate them to what our colleagues are doing in the hospital.’ To Partanen, parents are important partners as well. They have to give their consent, but usually that’s not a problem at all, she says. ‘Every parent wants the best possible treatment for their child. Moreover, most parents are keen on collaborating since good research will also help future children. People really want to support us in our efforts to accomplish the mission of the Princess Máxima Center.’

Better starting position
Many people know that research at the Máxima is important, Partanen concludes. ‘Our studies on neuropsychology answer a need that is felt by every person involved. Everybody can see the devastating effects treatment of child cancer can have on daily life, school and work. I strongly believe our research will help children to get a better starting position for the rest of their lives.’