Researchers now have a clear evidence that ‘chemo brain’ where patients find it hard to concentrate following a chemotherapy, is real. Researchers discovered that chemotherapy can bring on excessive mind wandering and an inability to concentrate. Suspicions of negative cognitive effects of the cancer treatment have been there since a long time, nonetheless, the new study has for the first time explained why patients find it hard to pay attention.

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Researchers in the University of British Colombia Departments of Psychology and Physical Therapy gave some breast cancer survivors a set of tasks to complete, and then monitored their brain activity. They discovered that minds of people with chemo-brain lack the ability for sustained focused thought.

‘A healthy brain spends some time wandering and some time engaged,’ said Todd Handy, a professor of psychology at UBC. ‘We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.’ The functions of a health brain go on in a cyclic manner. People concentrate on a task and engage themselves completely for a few seconds, and then let their mind wander a bit.

A former PhD student Julia Kam, the first author of the study and other members of the research team discovered that chemo brains tend to stay in that disengaged state. Furthermore, they found that even when women thought they were focusing on a task, the measurements indicated that a big portion of their brain was turned off and their mind was wandering. Another evidence suggested that these women were more focused on their inner world. When these women were doing nothing, other than just relaxing, their brain was more active than healthy women.

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Kristin Campbell, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and leader of the research team, opines these discoveries will enable health care providers to measure the effects of chemotherapy on the brain. Physicians now recognize that the effects of cancer treatment persist long after its over and these effects can really impact a person’s life,’ said Campbell.
Tests developed for other cognitive disorders such as brain injury or Alzheimer’s have not been much effective in measuring chemo brain. Although, cancer survivors are able to complete these tests, they struggle to cope at work or in social situations since they find they are forgetful. ‘These findings could offer a new way to test for chemo brain in patients and to monitor if they are getting better over time,’ said Campbell, who also conducts research to measure how exercise can improve cognitive function for women experiencing chemo brain.