Memory problems after chemo linked to brain changes

May 29, 2014
Shown is a close-up of an intravenous (IV) bottle. Credit: Linda Bartlett/public domain

(HealthDay News)—Breast cancer survivors who had chemotherapy show changes in brain activity during multitasking chores, according to a new Belgian study.

These findings may partly explain the phenomenon dubbed "chemo brain." For years, people who've had have reported changes in thinking and memory, especially when doing more than one thing at once.

"Before you can fix a problem, you need to know what the problem is. And this study demonstrates what the problem may be. It's a really good first step to understanding the what. Now we need to understand the why and how to fix it," said Dr. Courtney Vito, a breast surgeon and assistant clinical professor of surgical oncology at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif. Vito was not involved in the current study, but reviewed the study's findings.

In her experience, Vito said, women tend to be affected more by chemo brain than are men after chemotherapy. However, she said, "women tend to multitask more, so this might explain part of it."

The new study was published online May 27 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Problems with thinking and memory (so-called "cognitive" changes) are a common side effect of chemotherapy, according to background information in the study. The good news is these changes, while real and concerning, often aren't significant.

"Despite their impact on day-to-day activities, the observed cognitive changes are often of small magnitude and fall mostly within the normal range," wrote the study's authors.

Still, the researchers wanted to understand the exact reason behind these changes, something that hasn't been well-studied, they noted.

To best do this, the investigators needed to see how the brain functioned before treatment and after treatment.

For the study, Dr. Sabine Deprez from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and colleagues evaluated 18 women with who had chemotherapy, 16 with breast cancer who didn't have chemotherapy, and 17 healthy women without breast cancer.

The researchers measured the brain activity of the study volunteers using a device called functional MRI, which allows doctors to measure what areas of the brain are active during certain tasks.

The tests were done one to two weeks before chemo treatment, then four to six months after chemotherapy ended. The other two groups underwent the imaging tests at the same times.

The decrease in brain activity that occurs during multitasking was seen in those who had chemo but not in the other two groups. There was also a link between the patients' complaints about concentration and memory and the changes in seen in the imaging tests, according to the study authors.

The researchers suggested these changes may be due to damage that occurs to the brain during chemotherapy, or because certain connections in the brain may be affected by chemotherapy.

The study has many strengths, said Dr. Daniel Silverman, professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Wellness Center. Silverman also was not involved in the study but reviewed the findings.

Among the strengths of the new research, he said, is that the researchers followed the women over time, observing them at different time points, known as a longitudinal study.

In his own research, Silverman has found that activity in various parts of the brain was altered in who had chemotherapy, even up to 10 years after completing the treatment.

However, most see improvements long before then. "About 80 percent have a return to normal within one to two years after completing the chemotherapy," said Silverman.

Explore further: Receiving chemotherapy after a breast cancer diagnosis may affect a patient's employment

Related Stories

Receiving chemotherapy after a breast cancer diagnosis may affect a patient's employment

April 28, 2014
A new study has found that loss of paid employment after a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer may be common and potentially related to the type of treatment patients received. Published early online in Cancer, a peer-reviewed ...

'Chemo brain' may occur before treatment even starts

December 7, 2012
(HealthDay)—So-called "chemo brain"—problems with thinking, concentrating and remembering that are associated with receiving chemotherapy—may actually start to occur before the treatment is initiated, a small new study ...

Breast cancer survivors struggle with cognitive problems several years after treatment

December 12, 2011
A new analysis has found that breast cancer survivors may experience problems with certain mental abilities several years after treatment, regardless of whether they were treated with chemotherapy plus radiation or radiation ...

Breast cancer patients place huge emphasis on gene expression profiling test

April 28, 2014
Gene expression profiling tests play a critical role when women with early-stage breast cancer decide whether to have chemotherapy, but many of them do not fully understand what some of the test results mean, new research ...

Research suggests 'chemo brain' may involve neurophysiological change

April 19, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—For many years, breast cancer patients have reported experiencing difficulties with memory, concentration and other cognitive functions following cancer treatment. Whether this mental "fogginess" is psychosomatic ...

Researchers identify physiological evidence of 'chemo brain'

November 27, 2012
Chemotherapy can induce changes in the brain that may affect concentration and memory, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). Using positron emission ...

Recommended for you

Outdoor light at night linked with increased breast cancer risk in women

August 17, 2017
Women who live in areas with higher levels of outdoor light at night may be at higher risk for breast cancer than those living in areas with lower levels, according to a large long-term study from Harvard T.H. Chan School ...

Scientists develop novel immunotherapy technology for prostate cancer

August 17, 2017
A study led by scientists at The Wistar Institute describes a novel immunotherapeutic strategy for the treatment of cancer based on the use of synthetic DNA to directly encode protective antibodies against a cancer specific ...

Scientists develop blood test that spots tumor-derived DNA in people with early-stage cancers

August 16, 2017
In a bid to detect cancers early and in a noninvasive way, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center report they have developed a test that spots tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood and have used it to ...

Toxic formaldehyde is produced inside our own cells, scientists discover

August 16, 2017
New research has revealed that some of the toxin formaldehyde in our bodies does not come from our environment - it is a by-product of an essential reaction inside our own cells. This could provide new targets for developing ...

Cell cycle-blocking drugs can shrink tumors by enlisting immune system in attack on cancer

August 16, 2017
In the brief time that drugs known as CDK4/6 inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, doctors have made a startling observation: in certain patients, the drugs—designed to halt cancer ...

Researchers find 'switch' that turns on immune cells' tumor-killing ability

August 16, 2017
Molecular biologists led by Leonid Pobezinsky and his wife and research collaborator Elena Pobezinskaya at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have published results that for the first time show how a microRNA molecule ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.