Chemo Brain Is Real, Researchers Say

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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 very small Canadian study has found that people with chemo brain have minds that wander more than usual and have a hard time concentrating.

The study was published online on March 25, 2015 by the journal Clinical Neurophysiology. Read the abstract of “Sustained attention abnormalities in breast cancer survivors with cognitive deficits post chemotherapy: an electrophysiological study.”

Women who’ve received chemotherapy to treat breast cancer have long complained about chemo brain. Still, some doctors question whether chemo brain actually exists. Others think the condition is related to hormonal therapy or depression and anxiety instead of chemotherapy.

In this University of British Columbia study, the researchers had two groups of women complete a set of tasks that required them to pay attention for several minutes:

  • 19 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had been treated with chemotherapy; these women had reported having cognitive problems up to 3 years after treatment
  • 12 women hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer and hadn’t been treated with chemotherapy

While the women were doing the tasks, they wore a cap with special sensors in it so the researchers could monitor their brain activity. The researchers also monitored the women’s brains when the women weren’t doing anything so they could compare the brain activity.

The researchers found that the women who had been treated with chemotherapy had a hard time paying attention for any amount of time.

Normally, our brains function in cycles. We can focus on a task and be completely engaged for a few seconds, then let our minds wander a bit.

In this study, the researchers found that the women who had chemotherapy and said they were having cognitive problems had brains that tended to stay in a wandering state. Even when the women thought they were focusing on a task, the brain activity measurements showed that a large part of their brains were turned off and their minds were wandering.

The women with chemo brain also were more focused on their inner worlds. When these women weren’t doing a task and were asked to relax, their brains were more active compared to women who had never had chemotherapy.

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.

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



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