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Stanford study shows effects of chemotherapy and breast cancer on brain function

If you've known someone who has undergone treatment for cancer, you may have heard of "chemo brain." That's the term used for the condition in which cancer patients and survivors have difficulty thinking, focusing and remembering - and it’s something that breast cancer survivors in a small UCLA study recently called their most “troublesome post treatment symptom.”

As the authors of that 2009 study pointed out, the cognitive difficulties facing those with cancer “was largely unacknowledged by the medical community until recent years.” But an increasing body of evidence, including new findings from a Stanford neuroimaging study, is showing that “chemo brain” is very much a real phenomenon. 

In the Stanford study, researchers examined 44 female breast cancer patients and 19 healthy women and found that when asked to perform certain tasks, women who have undergone chemotherapy had significantly less activation of a part of the brain known to play a critical role in planning, attention and memory than did healthy women and breast cancer patients without such treatment. The work also found that among patients who received chemotherapy, complaints about their cognitive ability significantly correlated with lower activation of these parts of the brain.

Senior author Shelli Kesler, PhD, who has done previous work showing brain abnormalities in chemotherapy patients, told me that the findings should hold significance for those patients who have complained of cognitive difficulties but been dismissed as imagining or exaggerating the problems. (Unfortunately, Kesler told me, that’s not an uncommon occurrence.) And, as I explain in a release:

Kesler... said it was important for patients and physicians to have an increased awareness of the issue — “not only to validate the patients’ experience, but to also increase the likelihood that they’ll receive proper, supportive services and treatments for their cognitive difficulties.”

The study appears online today in the Archives of Neurology.

Photo by Sarah G

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