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Breast Cancer Treatment Affects Brain's Gray Matter, Shown in Studies

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers using brain imaging find that chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment alters brain tissue. The effects for some women can be pronounced, leading to difficulty with memory and daily tasks. For other women, "chemobrain", a recognized side effect of cancer treatment, is subtle. Rarely, the effects of breast cancer treatment interfere with the ability to return to work, especially for middle-aged women.

Andrew Saykin, Psy.D, director of the Indiana University Center for Neuroimaging and a researcher at the IU Simon Cancer Center explains, Memory and executive functions like multi-tasking and processing speed are the most typically affected functions and these are handled by the brain regions where we detected gray matter changes."

The study is the first prospective analysis to measure the effect of chemotherapy on the brain, suggesting there is an anatomic reason for performance changes that might include difficulty with memory and multi-tasking, experienced by women receiving chemotherapeutic drugs.

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Scientists compared 17 women receiving chemotherapy after surgery, 12 with breast cancer and no chemo and 18 women without breast cancer. Brain imaging using MRI was used at baseline, one month and one year following treatment. During and after chemotherapy the researchers found loss of gray matter in the brain that correlate with cognitive dysfunction. For most of the women, gray matter density improved a year after treatment ended.

Chemotherapy Effect on the Brain can make Tasks Difficult for Women

Dr. Saykin says chemotherapy can make tasks more difficult for women being treated for breast cancer, but not impossible. For many women the effects of the drugs on the brain are barely noticeable.

Middle aged women seem to be affected more from loss of gray matter in the brain that can result from breast cancer chemotherapy. The researchers are continuing their studies of the effect of breast cancer drugs on the brain.

Indiana University School of Medicine