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Researcher hopes "chemo brain" study can help cancer patients


Chemotherapy is one of the best known forms of cancer treatment, and while often effective, it can leave behind a number of side effects, like hair loss and nausea. Some who have undergone chemotherapy also have claimed to have felt foggy, forgetful and not as sharp as they were before the treatment. Largely ignored by the medical community in the past, this symptom, which is referred to as “chemo brain,” is finally starting to come to the forefront in medical research.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Michelle Janelsins talks about the research she and others are now conducting on chemo brain. Janelsins is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, Cancer Control at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, where she got her PhD.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Janelsins.

Janelsins defines chemo brain as, “a set of problems in domains of memory, concentration, attention, and multi-tasking and processing speed,” that occur during or after chemotherapy treatment. She notes that these problems, if they appear at all, range from mild to severe, and can appear in one or several domains.

While research on the topic is just recently emerging, Janelsins has found that these symptoms are most pronounced during treatment. Sometimes though, the effects can take a long time to wear off.

“There is literature to suggest, even up to twenty years post-treatment, that patients can still be experiencing some of these changes. So the data on the long-term effects is still really growing, but I think it does appear that a subset of survivors do have some long term difficulties,” says Janelsins.

While chemo brain has been an issue since chemotherapy treatment was first offered, Janelsins suggests it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that systematic scientific research on it actually began. “We’re really starting to appreciate that this is a true phenomenon and that a subset of patients are having some cognitive change,” she says.

Studies of chemo brain often combine both objective neuropsychological tests and patient reports in hopes of finding a relationship between the two. “I think that as we do this type of research with this combined assessment with objective and patient report measures that we’re really starting to understand and characterize this phenomenon,” she says.

Janelsins is currently leading a nationwide study on chemo brain that is being sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Based out of the University of Rochester Cancer Center, its studying 1,200 participants to “clarify the findings of some of the other studies that have been done to really understand the prevalence and trajectory of cognitive change.” While it’s focusing on patients with breast cancer and lymphoma, Janelsins hopes the results will benefit anyone undergoing chemotherapy for any kind of cancer.

The goal of the study, according to Janelsins, “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.”

In the end, the results will hopefully cause changes in chemotherapy that won’t “interfere with quality of life or treatment adherence.” With cancer treatment already difficult enough for a person to undergo, Janelsins hopes that her research on chemo brain can help eliminate one more side effect of it.