Chemo Brain Research

What Is Chemo Brain and
What Causes It?


By Susan Chandler Kelley

Copyright 2009; do not reprint without permission

Many cancer survivors who received chemotherapy suffer from memory loss, inability to concentrate, and problems with cognition and comprehension. Over time, this range of symptoms gained the name of ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog.’ For some survivors, these symptoms endure only for a few months or a year, but others suffer much longer.

A nine-year cancer/chemo survivor myself, I still live with chemo brain. My oncologist thought depression caused these mental symptoms. Yet even after antidepressants got the depression under control, chemo brain still flourished.

For years this syndrome stymied medical professonals. A recent WebMD article stated: “Until recently, doctors told cancer patients who developed memory loss, seizures, vision problems, and dementia that their ailments — collectively dubbed “chemo brain” — resulted from treatment-related fatigue, depression, and anxiety.” (1)

About five years ago, while searching WebMD for info on breast cancer survival, a link popped up. The link led me to an article about breast cancer survivors who suffered from the same cognitive difficulties I had experienced. This article referred to these difficulties as ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog,’ the first time I had ever heard those terms. Researchers ran MRIs on these women as they received their chemo treatments. The MRIs vividly portrayed changes in the brains of these women during their chemo.

This article offered the first proof I had ever found that chemo brain was real and that medical professionals finally acknowledged it and tried to determine its cause. Since chemotherapy consists of chemicals that kill cells (many healthy cells along with the cancerous ones), it makes sense to me that chemo could literally cause such changes in the brain. It also makes sense to me that such ‘brain change’ could result in chemo brain symptoms. Oddly enough, this information relieved me intensely. I was not ‘losing my mind,’ as I had feared.

Many professionals in the  cancer field now accept chemo brain as a reality. Further research has uncovered more information on its possible causes. “Reporting in the April 22 issue of Journal of Biology, researcher Mark Noble, PhD, director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, links the drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) to extensive damage among specific groups of cells in the central nervous system…” (1)  5-FU is a common chemotherapy drug.

A different article discusses this same study of the chemo drug 5-FU. This second article indicates the mice in the study suffered damage to the cells which produce myelin. Myelin “coats the nerves and helps them transmit signals to and from the brain. Large areas of the mice’s brains didn’t have enough myelin.” (2)

This study, carried out by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Centre in New York State, US, and Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts, US, was published in the Journal of Biology. This study suggests that such myelin deficiency could account for the cognitive problems known as chemo brain.

However, even if chemotherapy actually causes chemo brain, that does not mean one should avoid chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a long-standing treatment for various forms of cancer and has helped transform many cancer victims into cancer survivors such as myself. Even with the loss of cognitive abilities I have suffered due to chemo brain, that is an infinitesimal price to pay to be alive today, nine years after.

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1. “Treatment Ends, ‘Chemo Brain’ Lingers,” WebMD Health News; Kelli Miller Stacy (Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD); April 21, 2008

2.  “Does chemotherapy cause memory loss?”; BMJ Group; April 25, 2008
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9 Responses to “Chemo Brain Research”

  1. Great info. Nice to know that there is some empirical evidence to support chemo brain as being a physiological response to the pharmacotherapy. Tanks for the sources.

  2. Thanks for this informative article! I have a friend who had cancer and suffers from chemo brain. I’ve forwarded this article to her because I think it will be helpful. Hope you continue to stay cancer free!

  3. I really enjoyed this article. I forwarded it to some of my friends who have loved ones with chemo brain. Thanks!

  4. Christopher Makepeace Says:

    Thanks, now I know I am not going crazy.

  5. Interesting and useful blog

  6. I am a six-year survivor who has had chemo and chemo brain. My area of specialty is cognitive performance, and I have spent considerable effort in researching this issue. Monje et al published a thorough analysis of the evidence concerning the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the brain. The article, with a 120+ list of references was published online in December.

    The evidence appears to be irrefutable. Yet, little research has been performed on recovery.

    Using my work on improving brain performance with nutrition, exercise, training, and various lifestyle adjustments, I have found a way to recover to a significant extent. This is all based on research and clinical evidence.

    There is no reason to despair. The principles of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are two reasons for hope.

  7. Thanks so much! I seem to have all the symptoms of chemo brain, and have compensated with daily routines and such. Still most people do not believe me and I am sad that they would even think I would be making this stuff up. Who could make this stuff up? I’ve always been a mover and a shaker and now I can’t even complete my own sentences. (I’ve spent most of my life completing other peoples sentences)

  8. @ ALL: Thank you so much for your comments. I know there are many out there who suffer from CB as well. It’s taken a lot of time but finally med-persons accept it as a true ailment. With luck, maybe it won’t take so long for them to come up with ways to help alleviate some of the problems. I’m appreciative that, after 10 years, it’s finally stopped getting worse. Also, when I can minimize stress and “fluster,” I do much better; it also helps to get sufficient sleep. I also try to keep in mind that this is a small price to pay for being alive 10 years after.

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