Chemo Brain Effect: What Is It?

Doctors and researchers use the term “chemo brain” to refer to the cognitive decline caused by chemotherapy. In this article we will focus on the definition of this disorder, highlighting some hypotheses that try to explain it and determine its extent.
Chemo brain effect: what is it?

Have you ever heard of the chemo brain effect ? In the specialist field, this term is used to refer to the cognitive impairment caused by tumor therapies, especially chemotherapy.

In most cases, it involves reduced mental acuity, impaired memory and difficulty in carrying out activities and acquiring new skills.

Although the chemo brain effect is mainly associated with chemotherapy treatment, drug therapy combined with radiotherapy can also produce the same effects. However, there are additional risk factors, such as age and the coexistence of psychopathological symptoms.

Woman looking out the window.

How to recognize the chemo brain effect?

Thanks to medical advances, cancer survival rates have increased over the years. While it is still a terrible disease, it is no longer always lethal.

Many patients return to their normal life habits once therapy is over. This fact has determined that some of the research has focused on the side effects and sequelae of cancer therapies in the recovered.

It is precisely in this period that the various changes are noticed. Small forgetfulness, problems in carrying out daily activities and simpler tasks or difficulty concentrating. Consequences that can produce anxiety and a sense of inadequacy.

In other words, the patient realizes that “something is wrong” and that these difficulties arose after the chemotherapy treatment. Depending on the aspects related to the physical health and psychopathological conditions of the individual, each person will develop cognitive symptoms in a different way.

Causes of the chemo brain effect

By means of functional magnetic resonance imaging, it has been shown that during treatment the quality of vascular blood flow decreases, in some cases even with a reduced supply of glucose to the brain.

This is evident in some areas of the subcortical-frontal region and in others near the hippocampus, associated with memory, which show hypoactivity.

Studies also show that a few months after the end of the treatment, the quality of the nutrient supply is restored. Only in 10% of cases, the problems persist over time. In fact, in most cases, the values ​​return to baseline after about two and a half years.

Another cause of the chemo brain effect is related to oligodendrocytes. These are cells that play an essential role in the central nervous system, producing myelin, a protective sheath that supports the functions of nerve fibers. Failure to renew myelin impairs communication between nerve cells.

Mark Noble and his colleagues at the University of Rochester showed in a study in mice that oligodendrocyte cells practically disappeared from the brain six months after 5-FU treatment.

According to Noble, these findings may explain some of the neurological side effects associated with chemotherapy, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating and, in the most extreme cases, vision problems and even dementia.

Treatment of the chemo brain effect

The treatment consists of a rehabilitation program, which is aimed at patients suffering from any type of tumor, with the exception of brain tumors; regardless of gender, age.

First, an initial assessment is carried out to understand the patient’s situation, whether he has deficits and what kind of ailments he suffers from. Once the program is completed, the assessment is repeated to gather information on the immediate results of the rehabilitation.

After six months, a new evaluation is carried out to verify the evolution of the results and maintain the objectives achieved.

Brain illustration.

General guidelines of the rehabilitation program

  • Resume your hobbies.
  • Write down appointments and what you consider important in a diary.
  • Resume reading.
  • Learning a foreign language.
  • Do the crossword puzzles.
  • Practice – as far as possible and under medical supervision – physical activity, useful for both the heart and the brain.
  • Take care of hydration and nutrition, avoiding the high consumption of sugar and animal fats.
  • Consume chocolate and coffee in moderate doses.
  • Sleep well.
  • Managing emotions to reduce anxiety and frustration.

As current cancer treatments will remain so for years to come, it is vital to know their impact on people and use that knowledge to discover new ways of preventing side effects.

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