‘Chemo brain’ is real, Vancouver scientists say in new study

WATCH:  Dr. Todd Handy confirms “chemo brain” is a real thing and discusses how cancer patients are affected by treatment.

There’s hair loss, changes to your appetite and incessant fatigue – chemotherapy is a gruelling process. But new Canadian research is warning that another side effect is difficulty concentrating.

In a new study, scientists out of the University of British Columbia say that they’re the first to explain why the cancer treatment tampers with attention span in patients.

“A healthy brain spends some time wandering and some time engaged, Dr. Todd Handy, a psychology professor at UBC said in a statement.

“We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode,” he warned.

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He uses an example: for most people, brain function is cyclical – we focus on the task at hand completely engaged and then our minds wander before getting back to productivity. But for those relying on chemo to battle cancer, their minds stay in constant rumination.

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The researchers had breast cancer survivors complete a set of tasks while their brain activity was monitored. Those dealing with chemotherapy didn’t have sustained focus. Even when they thought they were engaged in a task, a large part of their brain said otherwise.

When the women were asked to relax, those who had chemotherapy still had more active brains compared to their healthy counterparts.

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The researchers say their findings could help oncologists and front line health care workers understand the effects of chemotherapy on the brain.

“Physicians now recognize that the effects of cancer treatment persist long after it’s over and these effects can really impact a person’s life,” Dr. Kristin Campbell said.

“These findings could offer a new way to test for chemo brain in patients and to monitor if they are getting better over time,” she said.

The full findings were published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology.

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