Cognitive Dysfunction ("Chemo Brain")

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: February 6, 2020

What is Chemo Brain?

Many survivors who have previously received or are currently undergoing chemotherapy report having cognitive changes (or cognitive deficits), often referred to as "chemo-brain." These changes include difficulty with short term memory, multi-tasking, new learning, reading comprehension, working with numbers and a decrease in concentration. For many years, this was thought to be depression or anxiety over the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. More recently, researchers have begun to study what survivors have been saying all along; cognitive changes after chemotherapy are real. Although we are not yet able to pinpoint whether only certain chemotherapy drugs cause chemo brain, it seems certain that the effects are cumulative. That is, those who receive more chemotherapy tend to have more problems with cognitive changes. Studies have found that cognitive ability can get better over time in some survivors, but cognitive problems are still present in many long-term survivors, even years after treatment. Each person's experience is unique, making it difficult to predict what deficits, if any, a person will have, and whether or not they will continue after treatment.

In recent years, many studies have shown some level of decline in brain function in cancer survivors after treatment for cancer, although some studies have not found any change. The effect can be a worsening of a pre-existing cognitive issue, or a new change in function. Some study participants worsen during therapy and gradually improve after, while others find their impairments are long-lasting, if not permanent.

What are these cognitive effects exactly? Survivors identify changes in attention/concentration, processing speed, verbal and visual memory, multitasking, word finding, and difficulty with organization. These effects can lead to an inability to perform one's job, difficulty managing family/home responsibilities and even social withdrawal for fear of embarrassment. Family, friends and co-workers often expect the survivor to be "back to normal,” only adding to the stress of cognitive changes.

Rule Out Other Causes

It is important to remember that some very treatable problems can result in cognitive difficulties, such as thyroid dysfunction, depression and anxiety, so it is important to rule out or treat these diagnoses. Hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone levels) is a common issue for survivors and can make you feel "fuzzy" or "out of it." This is easily treatable with supplemental thyroid hormone. Survivors who may be depressed or experiencing anxiety would benefit from consulting with a psychiatrist or psychologist experienced in working with cancer patients or survivors. Don't just assume your cognitive concerns are due to chemo-brain.

Treatments: Medications

Currently, there are no medications used specifically to treat chemo brain. Medications used to treat other dysfunctions of the brain may be helpful in the treatment of chemo brain. These include medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, depression, and narcolepsy. Many of these medications stimulate the brain and therefore may result in improved concentration, memory and attention, as well as decreased fatigue. Along the same lines, caffeine is an over the counter stimulant that improves cognitive function for millions of people every day. It is a relatively safe way for many people to stimulate their brain function.

Ginkgo biloba is often promoted as a memory enhancer, but studies have not found this to be true. One large study of elderly patients found no decrease in Alzheimer's disease, and actually saw an increase in dementia and stroke in the group taking the supplement. Ginkgo biloba increases the risk of bleeding and should be used with caution. As with all herbal therapies, just because they are labeled as "natural" does not mean they do not have side effects. Look into the possible side effects of any supplement, as well as the reputation of the manufacturer and their products. Vitamin E, in safe doses, may be beneficial to brain health. However, Vitamin E can also interfere with medications such as blood thinners. Do not take any supplements without first checking with your provider.

Treatments: "Brain Rehab"

Cognitive rehabilitation programs are structured programs utilizing exercise, tasks that use memory and puzzles to "rehabilitate" one's mind. These programs are typically used for people with brain injuries, but therapists have tailored programs for cancer survivors. A number of companies offer computer programs that aim to improve brain function. There are currently studies ongoing looking at the effectiveness of these programs in cancer survivors.

Puzzles using numbers, like Sudoku, may help "exercise" your brain. It is likely that any brain stimulation may be helpful and certainly cannot hurt, whether through a game, taking a course at a local school, or joining a book discussion club.

Fatigue can make cognitive problems worse. Avoid fatigue by getting enough sleep, adding exercise into your life, and by eating a healthy diet.

Tips for Managing Life with Chemo-Brain

There is no "quick fix" for chemo brain. It is important to be creative and do things in your daily life that can help fight the symptoms:

  • Keep a detailed calendar or planner. Use your smart phone to set alarms to remind you of important appointments.
  • The all-too-important sticky note – just be sure to put them in places you will see them!
  • In the evening, start a list for tomorrow- what needs to get done and who do I need to call? Create a notebook for this so you can flip ahead and add something to next week's list when it comes to mind.
  • Keep a pad in the kitchen for a shopping list. When you see something is running low, add it right away.
  • Put a basket near the front door for those items you need every day- cell phone, keys, wallet, etc.
  • Avoid distractions when possible. Have important conversations in quiet places.
  • Trouble remembering something is cooking? Get into the habit of setting a timer. This is also a great use for your smart phone!
  • GPS/navigation systems/navigation apps can help you get places.
  • Be open with friends and family about any problems you might be having.
  • Most importantly, know your limitations. Don't take on tasks that require too much multi-tasking. Ask for help. Try to keep a positive outlook and find some humor in your "chemo-brain moments.”

Resources for More Information

American Cancer Society: Chemo-Brain

Cancer.net: Attention, Thinking or Memory Problems

Coping with Chemobrain: Keeping your Memory Sharp

References

Argyriou AA, Assimakopoulos K, Iconomou G, Giannakopoulou F, Kalofonos HP. Either called "chemobrain" or "chemofog," the long-term chemotherapy-induced cognitive decline in cancer survivors is real. Journal of pain and symptom management. 2011;41(1):126-39.

Boykoff N, Moieni M, Subramanian SK. Confronting chemobrain: an in-depth look at survivors' reports of impact on work, social networks, and health care response. Journal of cancer survivorship : research and practice. 2009;3(4):223-32.

Ganz PA. "Doctor, will the treatment you are recommending cause chemobrain?". Journal of clinical oncology : official journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. 2012;30(3):229-31.

Holmes D. Trying to unravel the mysteries of chemobrain. The Lancet Neurology. 2013;12(6):533-4.

Kvale E, Urba SG. NCCN guidelines for survivorship expanded to address two common conditions. Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network : JNCCN. 2014;12(5 Suppl):825-7.

Mayo Clinic. Chemo brain. 2016. Found at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chemo-brain/manage/ptc-20170264McNeil C. Treating chemobrain: rehabilitation therapies emerge. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2012;104(22):1691-2.

Mitchell T, Turton P. 'Chemobrain': concentration and memory effects in people receiving chemotherapy - a descriptive phenomenological study. European journal of cancer care. 2011;20(4):539-48.

Silverman D & Davidson, I Your Brain After Chemo. 2009. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press.

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