PURPOSE: Dexamethasone is a key component in the treatment of pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), but can induce serious adverse effects. Recent studies have led to the hypothesis that neuropsychological adverse effects may be a result of cortisol depletion of the cerebral mineralocorticoid receptors. We examined whether including a physiologic dose of hydrocortisone in dexamethasone treatment can reduce neuropsychologic and metabolic adverse effects in children with ALL.
PATIENTS AND METHODS: We performed a multicenter, double-blind, randomized controlled trial with a crossover design. Of 116 potentially eligible patients (age 3 to 16 years), 50 were enrolled and were treated with two consecutive courses of dexamethasone in accordance with Dutch Childhood Oncology Group ALL protocols. Patients were randomly assigned to receive either hydrocortisone or placebo in a circadian rhythm (10 mg/m(2)/d) during both dexamethasone courses. Primary outcome measure was parent-reported Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire in Dutch, which assesses psychosocial problems. Other end points included questionnaires, neuropsychological tests, and metabolic parameters.
RESULTS: Of 48 patients who completed both courses, hydrocortisone had no significant effect on outcome; however, a more detailed analysis revealed that in 16 patients who developed clinically relevant psychosocial adverse effects, addition of hydrocortisone substantially reduced their Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire in Dutch scores in the following domains: total difficulties, emotional symptoms, conduct problems, and impact of difficulties. Moreover, in nine patients who developed clinically relevant, sleep-related difficulties, addition of hydrocortisone reduced total sleeping problems and disorders of initiating and maintaining sleep. In contrast, hydrocortisone had no effect on metabolic parameters.
CONCLUSION: Our results suggest that adding a physiologic dose of hydrocortisone to dexamethasone treatment can reduce the occurrence of serious neuropsychological adverse effects and sleep-related difficulties in pediatric patients with ALL.