How Chemotherapy Affects the Brain

For individuals diagnosed with cancer, chemotherapy can be a potentially life-saving option. Chemotherapy, abbreviated as chemo, is a cancer treatment that uses a regimen of chemical anti-cancer drugs. Unfortunately, chemo has been known to cause “chemobrain”, which is when the person undergoing treatment experiences cognitive problems, which can feel like mental cloudiness. Shelli Kesler, associate professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and her colleagues are now researching and identifying which types of chemo treatments are more likely to cause cognitive damage.

senior woman getting chemotherapyThe study, published in JAMA Oncology, compared the effects of anthracycline, a commonly prescribed chemotherapy agent, with non-anthracycline agents in breast cancer survivors. The participants had been off of their treatments for more than two years and were an average age of 55 years old. Twenty women received anthracycline-based treatments, nineteen received non-anthracycline-based treatments and twenty-three did not receive chemotherapy at all.

All of the women in the study underwent MRI scans and cognitive tests to assess their memory as well as other cognitive functions. They found that the group that had received anthracycline treatments had lower verbal memory and immediate recall score than both of the other groups. Patient-reported cognitive dysfunction and psychological distress was higher in both of the chemo-treated groups as compared to the control group.

Kesler highly recommends that individuals undergoing chemotherapy treatments request a referral for a neuropsychological evaluation, highlighting that it is just as important to have regular brain check-ups as routine heart check-ups. She also mentioned that people should not avoid particular chemotherapy drugs, especially if they are prescribed as life-saving treatments. Researchers will continue to investigate the effects of specific chemotherapy agents on the brain and how age, gender or other genetic factors could influence the extent of the effects.

If you or a loved one is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, it is important to follow a physician’s advice in leading a healthy lifestyle to combat effects of cognitive decline. To boost mood and overall well-being, we recommend eating a healthy, varied diet, staying socially connected with friends and family, and exercising the brain by reading, learning or doing fun activities!