Researchers looking into the reality of ‘chemo brain’

A team of UBC researchers are looking into the reality of 'chemo brain' by studying chemo patients who reported the symptoms.

The researchers studied chemo patients who reported the symptoms of chemo brain, which include mind wandering and impaired concentration. However, the results of this study are in line with the kind of subjective complaints often found in chemo brain patients.

“We actually don't show [that] chemotherapy can cause chemo brain,” said UBC psychology professor Todd Handy, one of the researchers. “Rather, we show that chemo patients who report symptoms of chemo brain have brains that seem to be chronically mind wandering, even when they say they are paying attention to what they're currently doing.”

According to Handy, other symptoms of “chemo brain” include bad memory, clouded thinking and other problems associated with cognitive impairment.

“One parallel might be how some people feel after a hard night of partying,” said Handy. “You wake up the next morning, and you just feel like your brain's in a fog.”

According to Handy, there are no tests that can directly measure chemo brain, which becomes a problem when patients have complaints but no standardized diagnostic assessment exists to assess their mental state.

“In some cases, chemo brain can last for multiple years post-chemo treatment, again highlighting the challenges it poses,” Handy said.

Handy said he is unsure whether this research would change chemotherapy treatment but said it does give promise for addressing chemo brain symptoms, post-treatment.

“Our findings suggest that treatments targeting the brain's default mode network, which is involved in mind wandering, may be promising to pursue,” Handy said.

According to Handy, an EEG can perform an easy test that would the first measure to track improvements.

The researchers’ work provides a glimpse into possible ways to treat the condition and into observing the outcomes.

In reflection on the possibility of the keeping track of improvements in a “chemo brain,” Handy said, “In the end, that's what makes this particularly exciting.”