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More Chemotherapy Patients Express Signs Of ‘Chemo Brain’

Computer scans show lesser than normal brain activity caused by a condition called "chemo brain."

Julia Livingston started noticing some changes after receiving several rounds of chemotherapy for endometrial cancer—a type of uterine cancer.

“I didn’t feel like making anything new happen anymore,” she says as she recalls the side effects she experienced. “I’ve always been a pretty creative person in many ways, so I suddenly had no sense that I could put together and make something new happen.”

Livingston makes pottery, but she lost her inspiration. It’s part of a cognitive loss, mental slowness and even loss of memory, some people experience after chemotherapy—a phenomenon some call ‘chemo brain.’ Until recently, little was known about how and why patients have these neurological side effects during treatment.

Brenna McDonald, a pediatric neuropsychologist for the IU School of Medicine’s Center for Neuroimaging, says people take multiple medications during chemotherapy, so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the mental slowdown.

“We do see similar patterns of cognitive effects post treatment suggesting that it’s certainly not one particular chemo therapy drug, but likely has to do with the mechanism of action of many different drugs or potentially different combinations of medications,” she says.

But, she says, as more people learn about the issues, so are researchers.

“As with many issues in medicine, that fact that we are more aware of this or that patients are becoming more familiar with this concept and talking with each other about, ‘yes I’ve had this symptom as well,'” she says. “It’s impossible to know if this is a problem that’s increasing or decreasing in its actual incidence, or if it’s something that we’re more aware of and so we’re recognizing more appropriately.”

Treatments for chemo brain are in the process of being developed, but fortunately, McDonald says, it is typically a temporary condition and most patients fully recover about one year after stopping treatment.

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