Many cancer survivors have spoken and written about the effects of what has been dubbed “chemo brain” – a spacey feeling chemotherapy patients get, leading to difficulty concentrating and other symptoms(1).
But now researchers are putting this symptom, which has been presented mainly in the form of anecdotal evidence up until now, up to rigorous scientific testing – and what they’ve found is that patients aren’t exaggerating: “chemo brain” is very much a real thing.
The study, published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology and funded by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, took place at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Breast cancer survivors were tasked with completing a series of simple activities, while researchers monitored their brain activity. To their surprise, they found that people with “chemo brain” were indeed incapable of sustaining focused thought(2).
Healthy Brains Versus Chemo Brains
Healthy brains function in a cyclical fashion – people alternate between being focused and engaged in the task at hand, and letting their mind wander once the task is completed.
But the University of British Columbia researchers found that those suffering from “chemo brain” tended to stay in a disengaged state, unable to maintain sustained focus on a task at hand. This was true even when the cancer survivors thought they were focusing on a task.
“A healthy brain spends some time wandering and some time engaged,” said Todd Handy, a professor of psychology at UBC. “We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.”
Interestingly, the brain activity of patients suffering from “chemo brain” tended to more closely resemble the brain activity of healthy patients when they were asked to relax and let their minds wander, indicating that “chemo brain” patients may be more focused on their inner world than on external tasks.
The Impact Of Cancer Treatment
What causes chemo brain? Researchers have struggled with measuring the phenomenon using tests designed to measure for and assess the damage done by diseases like Alzheimer’s or other cognitive dysfunctions like traumatic brain injury, making it hard to understand exactly what is causing the phenomenon.
Some physicians believe that the stress of regular cancer treatments can result in neurological symptoms that mimic those of acute depression and anxiety – difficulty focusing, a sense of apathy that makes completing tasks more difficult, etc(3).
Others have wondered if chemo itself is a neurotoxin causing unmeasured damage to the brain(4).
The lack of understanding about what contributes to “chemo brain” has led to much fear surrounding conventional methods of cancer treatment – even, some doctors fear, leading people to forgo therapies that may be effective treatments for their diseases(5).
Kristin Campbell, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and leader of the research team, says these findings could help health care providers measure the effects of chemotherapy on the brain.
“Physicians now recognize that the effects of cancer treatment persist long after it’s over and these effects can really impact a person’s life,” said Campbell.
But regardless of the cause, many cancer survivors are now breathing sighs of relief that science has confirmed what they have been saying for some time – that “chemo brain” is a real symptom, and not just in their heads.