Study Finds Physical Evidence That Chemo Brain is Real

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Many women who get chemotherapy to treat breast cancer say they have problems remembering, thinking, and concentrating during and after treatment. These problems are commonly called “chemo brain” or “chemo fog” – doctors call these issues “cognitive impairment” or “cognitive problems.”

Some women may have trouble with:

  • learning new tasks
  • remembering names
  • paying attention and concentrating
  • finding the right words
  • multitasking
  • organizing thoughts
  • remembering where things are (keys, glasses, etc.)

A study found that chemo brain is associated with changes in the way parts of the brain use glucose, a type of sugar in the blood and the main source of energy for cells.

The research was presented at the 2012 Radiological Society of North America Annual Meeting.

Women who’ve received chemotherapy to treat breast cancer have long complained about chemo brain. Still, doctors haven’t been able to find any physical changes that allowed them to diagnose the condition and some questioned whether chemo brain actually existed.

So the researchers for this study decided to use a combined PET and CT scan to look at the brain function of 115 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and treated with chemotherapy. None of the women had breast cancer that had spread to the brain. The researchers compared the scans of the women’s brain function before and after chemotherapy.

They found that the brain’s ability to process glucose was lower than normal in areas closely linked to chemo brain, including:

  • superior medial frontal gyrus – associated with mental quickness, decision making, and problem solving
  • temporal operculum – associated with long-term memory

The changes in the brain’s ability to process glucose were significant, which means that it was likely due to the chemotherapy and not just to chance.

While more research is needed to understand exactly how chemotherapy affects brain function, these results are a promising start to figuring out exactly how chemo brain happens and how to treat it.

The good news is that most women who have memory and thinking problems during breast cancer treatment recover and are able to remember and think clearly after treatment is done. Still, a small number of women continue to have problems for a year or more after treatment ends.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and are having thinking and memory problems, there are things you can do to help yourself. You might want to check out the transcript of Breastcancer.org’s Ask-the-Expert Online Conference on Managing Chemo Brain to read about other women’s experiences and questions, as well as the answers from Breastcancer.org medical experts. You’ll find tips on:

  • managing memory challenges
  • keeping your mind alert
  • getting more and better quality sleep
  • staying safe when you’re not so alert

Stay tuned to Breastcancer.org Research News for the latest information on chemo brain and its causes.

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