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More than just ‘chemo brain’: Cancer impacts memory, too

People undergoing cancer treatment often report experiencing “chemo brain,” or states of confusion and cognitive impairment due to aggressive chemotherapy treatment. But new research suggests that these cognitive problems might start earlier, with the development of cancer tumors.
mature woman with brain fog
Could ‘chemo brain’ be due to more than just chemotherapy? Researchers investigate.

Researchers at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada, conducted a study focusing on the “chemo brain” effect, with the purpose of understanding to what extent these states of cognitive impairment are caused by the treatment.

Lead author Dr. Gordon Winocur and his team conducted experiments in mice, which led them to observe that problems in learning and recall began to occur prior to chemotherapy in the animals with cancer.

“Our work,” explains Dr. Winocur, “isolated that the cancer is responsible for some of the memory and thinking complaints experienced by cancer survivors, and that drug therapy adds to the problem.”

He adds, “Both factors independently affect brain function in different ways, which can lead to the development of other psychological disturbances, such as anxiety and depression.”

The team’s findings were recently published in the journal Neuroscience.

Three brain changes impact cognition

Research covered by Medical News Today early this year indicated that chemo brain can severely impact people undergoing cancer treatment, with over 45 percent of breast cancer survivors reporting significantly impaired cognitive performance after chemotherapy.

In the current study, the researchers noted that female mouse models with breast cancer exhibited three distinct brain changes related to cognitive function, one of which was independent from exposure to chemotherapy.

First, they saw that the immune system reacts to the development of cancer tumors by releasing cytokines, which are a type of protein that play a key role in cell signaling. This is a natural response, with the aim of preventing the cancer from spreading further.

However, the study revealed that this immune system reaction also triggers inflammation of the nervous system, which affects normal brain functioning.



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