Cancer Treatments Affect Healthy Brain Cells

Armen Hareyan's picture

Healthy Brain and Cancer Treatment

Scientists isolate source of 'chemo brain'

Cancer treatment drugs that are used commonly may be more harmful to healthy brain cells than the cancer cells that they are intended to destroy. That is the conclusion of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center and published today in the Journal of Biology. The results, which also indicate that chemotherapy may cause long-term brain damage, represent the closest that scientists have come to pinpointing the underlying physiological cause of "chemo brain," a common side effect of cancer treatment that scientists are only now beginning to comprehend.


Cancer patients who receive chemotherapy have long complained of adverse neurological side effects ranging from memory loss to, in extreme cases, seizures, vision loss and even dementia. Until very recently, these conditions were often dismissed as unrelated to the cancer treatment and rather the result of the patient's mental state. However, a growing body of evidence has documented the scope and cognitive impact of chemo brain. A study earlier this year conducted by the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester suggested that upwards of 82% of cancer patients reported that they suffer from some form of cognitive impairment.

Chemotherapy and Brain

While scientists have suspected that chemotherapy may have an impact on healthy cells in the central nervous system, the precise mechanisms of this condition were not fully understood. Now a University of Rochester team led by Mark Noble, Ph.D. believes that they have unraveled the mystery behind chemo brain. "This is the first study that puts chemo brain on a sound scientific footing, in terms of neurobiology and cellular biology."

As in other organs and systems in the body, the central nervous system is populated with several types of cells that produce or repair the cells needed for normal function. These cells fall into three general categories: dividing stem cells, dividing intermediate cells types called precursors and progenitors, and non-dividing mature cells.

Noble and his team exposed several different populations of healthy brain cells as well as multiple human cancer cell lines to clinically relevant levels of three commonly used chemotherapy drugs