Chemo-Brain: How Cancer Treatments Interfere With Cognitive Function

December 22, 2009 at 1:30 pm Leave a comment

(Brain) Foggy Morning:  Image by AyeCeeYou on Stock.Xchng For years, cancer patients have complained about “chemo-brain”:  a mental fog that seemed to start with their chemotherapy treatments, the effects of which can last long after treatments had stopped – for weeks, months, or even years.

The medical community has been slow to recognize these effects, believing any mental difficulties were due to other known side effects, and issues like depression, anemia, and so on.

But recent studies have not only confirmed that  the mental fog associated with chemotherapy is real, but even revealed at least part of how the brain-fog occurs: commonly used treatments  seem  to prevent the development of new brain-cells – in one case, reducing regeneration in the brain by as much as 30%!

Understanding the impact means accepting the new realities of neuroscience… that  adult brains are not (as previously believed) concrete and fixed, but constantly renewing and rewiring themselves through.  When we interfere with the process of renewal, our mental functions suffer – it’s harder to learn new things, store and retrieve new memories, focus on tasks and maintain a stable mood.

What does this mean in practical terms, for helping cancer patients deal with the brain fog of chemo?

It’s too early in the research to know for sure, but treatment with an insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) shows promise in reversing the problem.

And though the existing studies don’t reference the idea (and this is pure speculation on my part!)  it  seems possible that tactics of brain-fitness might minimize or slow the negative-effects of chemo on the brain both before, during and after treatments.   Physical and mental activity, a healthy diet, lower stress levels and adequate sleep (among other things) normally help the brain to build a cognitive reserve that might be drawn on during the stress of chemo, or they might simply help the brain recover more quickly.

Because of debilitating side effects of chemo, patients are often inactive, unable to participate in their normal intellectual and social activities, are unable to eat much, are almost universally stressed.   Could efforts to stay more physically or mentally active reduce the cognitive struggles, or help patients recover more quickly?  It will be interesting to watch as this research develops further, but if I had to guess, I’d think that the more fit your brain is, the better able you’ll be to maintain your cognitive functions in the face of nearly any health challenges, whether it’s normal age-related declines, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries, or, perhaps… chemo-brain.

So if you or someone you love has gone through cancer treatments, and you’re noticing a difference in mental state, memory or focus, don’t assume it’s just advanced age or hopeless.  Talk to your doctor, then go on a brain-fitness quest to give your brain an extra boost towards recovery!

Entry filed under: Supporting Science & Medicine. Tags: , , .

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About This Blog

A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
Sponsored by Dakim Brain Fitness



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