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Chemo brain: another negative impact of cancer treatment

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
chemo brain, chemotherapy, side effect, memory problems,PET/CT

Chemotherapy has been reported to have a number of adverse effects on patients receiving it for cancer treatment. Many cancer patients who receive chemotherapy are troubled with memory problems during and after the treatment. The condition, known as “chemo brain,” has only been a reported occurrence; however, it has not been verified with a scientific study. Researchers affiliated with the University of West Virginia (Morgantown, West Virginia) have now verified the condition via a radiologic procedure. They reported their findings at the Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), which runs from November 25 through November 30 in Chicago, Illinois.

The researchers used positron emission tomography combined with computed tomography (PET/CT) to obtain physiological evidence of chemo brain; thus, proving it to be a very real medical condition. They note that all of the previous research that has been done on chemo brain has used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine changes in the brain during chemotherapy. However, this method only allows radiologists to image changes in the brain’s appearance, which are usually very small. The PET/CT imaging allowed the investigators to see how chemotherapy affects changes in brain function over time.

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PET/CT scanning is a type of nuclear medical imaging that allows radiologists to diagnose and understand the aggressiveness of certain types of cancers. People who are diagnosed with cancer regularly get PET/CT scans so that their physicians can evaluate metastases (spread) of the cancer. PET/CT imaging can examine the brain for possible metastases as well as many other abnormalities.

The study group comprised 128 breast cancer patients who had undergone chemotherapy. The investigators reviewed the PET/CT scans of their brain that had been done during the course of their treatment. The data from the imaging scans ultimately provided physiological proof to support chemo brain’s anecdotal history. Overall, key areas of the brain showed significant decreases in metabolism. They found changes of metabolism in areas of the brain that control problem solving, organizing daily events, sequencing, and long term memory. These were the areas that chemotherapy reported having problems. Their memory is foggy and they have difficulty making plans or performing simple tasks. Symptoms of chemo brain can include anything from difficulty multitasking and learning new skills to trouble with recalling conversations and even recalling words.

The upside of this research is that, although confirms chemo brain is a real condition, the condition appeared to be temporary. Over time, the effected brain regions regained their metabolism. Now that the researcher have proof of chemo brain’s existence, they plan to expand their research to a national level and search for treatment for individuals suffering from the condition.

Reference: The Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA)