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New study hopes to unlock the secret to "chemo brain"

Chemotherapy can cause many side effects like hair loss and nausea. But for years, many cancer patients have said it causes something else, forgetfulness and memory loss, or what cancer survivors call "chemo brain." Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, recently spoke with Michelle Janelsins of the University of Rochester, who is leading a research study into chemotherapy's effects on cognitive function.

Lorraine Rapp: The term “chemo brain” is relatively new. How do researchers and medical doctors actually define that term?

Michelle Janelsins: So we define chemo brain, or sometimes we call it cancer treatment or chemotherapy related cognitive dysfunction, includes a set of problems in domains of memory, concentration, attention, and multi-tasking and processing speed. It’s also really important to note that these can vary in severity. They are most often subtle in many patients. Also, if patients are having these problems, they might experience them in one or several of the domains.

Lorraine: What about the current study you’re involved in regarding chemo brain. What is the actual goal of the study?

Janelsins: So this study is funded by the National Cancer Institute. It’s a large nationwide study of 1,200 participants that I’m leading through our community clinical oncology program research based at the University of Rochester Cancer Center, and twenty of our affiliates across the United States. And really the main goal of this large study, and this is the largest study to date that we are aware of, is really to help to clarify the findings of some of the other studies that have been done to really understand the prevalence and trajectory of cognitive change. This study is focusing on breast cancer and lymphoma patients that are receiving chemotherapy, so we’re measuring cognitive function before chemotherapy, following chemotherapy and at a six month follow up time point.

Lorraine: What do you hope is going to be done with the information that you get?

Janelsins: There are really two goals here. One is to definitely continue to work on research to develop better treatments that are going to have less side effects. The other research, and this is really the area that I’m actively involved in, is to really understand which treatments appear to be most responsible for these cognitive changes, to better understand who might be most likely to develop these cognitive changes, and really to hopefully develop some successful interventions that patients can utilize to help or prevent these changes from occurring, so it doesn’t really interfere with quality of life or treatment adherence.

Linda Lohen: In terms of where the impetus for studies of this type, has this come from the patient’s side or the physician’s side?

Janelsins: I think that now, since the mid-1990s, we really started to do systematic scientific research in this topic and we’re really starting to appreciate that this is a true phenomenon and that a subset of patients are having some cognitive change. I think it’s also really important that in our research we use a combination of objective neuropsychological tests as well as patient report, and we use a combination of both of those to really understand how a patient’s cognition is changing. And so I think that as we do this type of research, that we’re really starting to understand and characterize the phenomenon.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sundays at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.