Breast Cancer to Blame for Brain Blanks

Breast cancer survivors often show neurological impairment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Cancer patients often blame mental blanks on what they kiddingly - or seriously - refer to as "chemo brain." New evidence suggests that for breast cancer survivors, the condition is very real.

The reality is that women who survive breast cancer do suffer from cognitive decline. For women who have undergone chemotherapy, the damage can be particularly pronounced, according to new research.

"Keep your mind active throughout and after cancer treatment."

For the study, Shelli R. Kesler, Ph.D., and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine examined profiles of brain activation to see if and how they differed among breast cancer survivors treated with or without chemotherapy, as compared to healthy women.

Participants included 25 women with breast cancer survivors who had undergone chemotherapy, 19 survivors who didn't receive chemotherapy and 18 healthy women who served as controls.

As the women were performing various tasks, a functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was used to measure which areas of the brain were activated.

Compared to healthy controls, the breast cancer survivors had significantly less activity in the areas of the brain that control attention, memory, decision making and other cognitive functions.

The women who had been treated with chemotherapy showed more impairment along with reduced processing speed, according to the authors. The chemotherapy group also had weaker executive function, which has to do with organizing, planning, picking up and remembering details and managing time and space.

Age and lower education levels tended to make these deficits worse.

Kesler told dailyRx in an email that she wants breast cancer survivors to know "that their reports of cognitive difficulties are being validated by this type of research," she said.

"There appear to be changes in the brain following breast cancer treatment that help explain their difficulties. They are not imagining the problem as some of them have been told," said Kessler, who is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford and Director of the Neuropsychology and Neurorehab Lab there.

When asked what she recommends for survivors experiencing these difficulties, Kesler said. "Neuropsychological evaluation is the standard of care for cognitive difficulties. This evaluation can provide a treatment plan."

Kesler adds, "Also, cognitive rehabilitation may be helpful for learning strategies to deal with these difficulties."

Results of this study are published in the November, 2011 issue of the Archives of Neurology, one of the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)/Archives journals.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 14, 2011
Last Updated:
November 15, 2011