Chemo brain: What does chemotherapy do to your brain?

By Efrosini Cost

Chemo brain: What does chemotherapy do to your brain?
Survivors joke about the symptoms of "chemo brain" but now a study has found real evidence of the effect.

For those who have had to undergo chemotherapy treatment, the feeling of mental fogginess is often joked about as “chemo brain”.

But, for the first time, researchers have been able to demonstrate that chemo brain is a genuine effect of the therapy.

First reported in women with breast cancer, some patients who undergo chemotherapy noticed changes in their memory, concentration and even the way they think.

Published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology, this latest study found that patients who reported the “chemo brain” effects lacked the ability for sustained focused thought.

“A healthy brain spends some time wandering and some time engaged,” Todd Handy, one of the researchers and a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.”

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, breast cancer patient’s brain activity was monitored as they completed a series of tasks.

Unfortunately, those with chemo brain tend to stay in this disengaged state, researchers said. Hence why half of all patients thought to be affected felt the need to constantly write things down and keep tasks as simple as possible.

Breast cancer survivors were found to be  “less likely to maintain sustained attention” compared to healthy individuals, even three years after treatment.

Even more worrying was that when the patients thought they were concentrating, the EEG showed large parts of their brains were actually ‘turned off’ and that their minds were essentially ‘wandering’. When asked to relax, however, these patients brains were more active than healthy women.

“Physicians now recognize that the effects of cancer treatment persist long after it’s over and these effects can really impact a person’s life,” said lead researcher, Kristin Campbell.

“These findings could offer a new way to test for chemo brain in patients and to monitor if they are getting better over time.”


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