Effects of prenatal exposure to cancer treatment on neurocognitive development, a review

Neurotoxicology. 2016 May;54:11-21. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2016.02.013. Epub 2016 Mar 4.


Due to the increasing incidence of cancer during pregnancy, the need to better understand long-term outcome after prenatal exposure to chemo- and/or radiotherapy has become more urgent. This manuscript focuses on the neurocognitive development after prenatal exposure to cancer treatment. We will review possible pathways for brain damage that could explain the subtle changes in neurocognition and behavior found after in utero exposure to cancer treatment. Contrary to radiation, which has a direct effect on the developing nervous system, chemotherapy has to pass the placental and blood brain barrier to reach the fetal brain. However, there are also indirect effects such as inflammation and oxidative stress. Furthermore, the indirect effects of the cancer itself and its treatment, e.g., poor maternal nutrition and high maternal stress, as well as prematurity, can be related to cognitive impairment. Although the available evidence suggests that cancer treatment can be administered during pregnancy without jeopardizing the fetal chances, larger numbers and longer follow up of these children are needed.

Keywords: Cancer; Chemotherapy; Neurocognitive development; Pregnancy; Radiotherapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / adverse effects*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*


  • Antineoplastic Agents