Chemo’s impact on cognition: Study shows it impairs memory, concentration, and even performing ordinary tasks
11/15/2017 // Frances Bloomfield // Views

Danish researchers have found that chemotherapy can alter the brain's network and impair memory. The study, a collaborative effort between Aarhus University School of Business and Social Science and Aarhus University Hospital, is the first to look at the neural impact of chemotherapy on testicular cancer patients.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers enlisted 64 men who had undergone surgery for testicular cancer. Of the participants, 22 had chemotherapy following their operation, while the remaining 42 opted solely for surgery.

All of the participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans at the beginning of the study, then again six months after. Additionally, each participant was subjected to a series of neuro-physical tests to gauge their ability to concentrate and their memory.

During the six-month follow-up, the chemotherapy group were noted to have performed worse during the neuro-physical tests. Specifically, they appeared to have difficulty accomplishing simple tasks, were unable to concentrate, and showed signs of memory loss. Furthermore, the MRI scans from this period indicated that the brain network capacity of this group had decreased.

Some people have trouble getting help with their cognitive problems after chemotherapy, and this study contributes to shedding light on the fact that the problem is real,” said researcher Bobby Zachariae. “Hopefully, this will make it easier for people to get help.”

Scientists who weren't affiliated with the study have spoken out about its implications. Christoffer Johansen, research leader at the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, remarked: “If you have cognitive problems, it means that you can struggle to remember, perform tasks, going to work, or take part in conversations. It can be a big problem for individuals if they don’t perform as well as before their chemotherapy.”


Brenna McDonald, associate professor at the Center for Neuroimaging at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said: “The Danish study supports previous work on other types of cancer that suggests that chemotherapy can lead to reduced efficiency in the brain’s neural networks, which can result in poor cognitive function.”

In spite of the compelling results, McDonald has noted that the study has a number of limitations. For one, the small number of participants involved in the study has the potential to impact the uncertainty of the results. However, McDonald also acknowledged that the results of this study are in line with past others which have outline the negative cognitive impacts of chemotherapy.

A brief rundown on chemo brain

What Zachariae and his colleagues have uncovered is another instance of the "chemo brain." Also known as "chemo fog" or post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment, the American Cancer Society has defined this condition as “a decrease in mental 'sharpness', or being unable to remember certain things and having trouble finishing tasks or learning new skills.”

Problems with concentration and memory are but two of the side effects of chemotherapy. They can occur before, during, or after the procedure, and the duration of chemo brain can vary from person. Some may only experience them for a short period of time, while other people may have to deal with this cerebral ailment for the long term.

The brain function issues that occur during chemotherapy can be worsened by any number of factors, primarily:

  • Hormone changes
  • Infection
  • Low blood count
  • Other illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Patient age
  • Tiredness
  • Stress and anxiety

Sources include:

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