New Research May Explain How Chemo Brain Occurs

Chemo brain, a common side effect of cancer treatment, can impact memory, the ability to learn new things, and the focus needed to complete daily tasks. What causes it, though? A new study aimed to find out.

Researchers at the University of Southern Queensland compared cognition and brain function in 15 breast cancer survivors and 15 cancer-free women of the same age and body mass index. They found that in survivors, cognitive function was 13% lower. Cerebrovascular function, which relates to blood flow in the brain, was lower as well.

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Tahnee Downs, lead researcher and PhD student, says, “Our study was significant because it was the first to show that cerebrovascular function and total cognition were lower in breast cancer survivors compared to women without cancer of the same age.

“This indicates that the decline in total cognitive function may be associated with reduced brain blood vessel function, which this study observed by measuring the cerebrovascular responsiveness to both physiological stimuli (44 per cent lower) and psychological stimuli (nine per cent lower).”

The team also found that in breast cancer survivors, physical activity levels were lower, while fatigue levels were higher. Past research has linked exercise with lower incidence of chemo brain.

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The University of Southern Queensland team says with the fatigue, survivors may also be less apt to exercise, which can worsen the existing fatigue. It may also deprive patients of brain benefits.

Dr. Edward Bliss, study co-author and Downs’ supervisor, says, “My previous research has shown that exercise can significantly improve brain health in older adults with metabolic syndrome and reduce the risk of cognition decline.

“Cognition is one of the most demanding functions of the brain, and when it is required to perform more work, it needs more nutrients and oxygen to do its job.

“Staying active and regularly exercising is the best way to get those nutrients and oxygen to the area of the brain that needs it the most.”

Going forward, the team says they’ll continue investigating the impact of exercise on cognition and cerebrovascular function in women with breast cancer to help improve their quality of life.

Stressed or tired woman sitting on sofa

In the interim, if you’re dealing with chemo brain, here are some things you can try to address it.

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