New study identifies physiological evidence for "chemobrain" in cancer patients

A study presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) offers new evidence that chemotherapy can create changes in the brain that affect cognitive function. Using PET/CT scans, researchers detected physiological evidence of chemobrain, a common side effect of chemo in cancer treatment.

Instead of studying chemotherapy's effect on the brain's appearance, [Dr. Rachel A. Lagos] and colleagues set out to identify its effect on brain function. By using PET/CT, they were able to assess changes to the brain's metabolism after chemotherapy.

"When we looked at the results, we were surprised at how obvious the changes were," Dr. Lagos said. "Chemo brain phenomenon is more than a feeling. It is not depression. It is a change in brain function observable on PET/CT brain imaging."

A personal note: Hell yes it's real. I have experienced profound damage in my ability to concentrate, remember names and experiences and tasks, and... wait what were we talking about? Also typos. I make more typos. No, seriously, chemobrain is one of the most upsetting parts of cancer treatment. Getting used to a damaged body is one thing; realizing your very mind has changed is another.

But for those about to experience it, here's the thing: you adapt. You get through it. You will function differently, but you will function. Let my posts here on Boing Boing, typos and all, be your proof.

Here's the full press release.

(thanks, Jody Schoger)


  1. “here’s the thing: you adapt. You get through it. You will function differently, but you will function.”

    Brava.  That’s it, exactly.  Surviving is not done in the short term, but over the long haul.

    Conversely, I discovered that some of my age-related minor complaints actually disappeared as a result of chemo.  Medical science is a weird beast.  One might say Cthulhu-esque.

  2. Some of those symptoms sound like possible side-effects of marijuana use as well (not that I’d discourage using it). Or, come to think of it, that’s also how I feel when I have to take a bunch of painkillers to get through a nasty headache. I’m not entirely sure what my point was. Fuck cancer in an uncomfortable place.

  3. I really noticed this in my mother after her chemo. The good news is – it gets better, especially with treatment. 

  4. I completely understand this. I suffer from what some call “pump head” from being on a heart-lung bypass machine for too long. I hate the loss in mental acuity that resulted. OTOH, without the pump I would be dead, sooooo, a pretty fair deal. If the choice is dipshit or dead, I’ll choose dipshit every time.

  5. I definitely had periods where I was … the best word I can think of is “ditsy”.  Just not sharp.  Sometimes talked in run-on sentences that trailed off into embarrassing silence when I suddenly realized I sounded stupid.  It was variable like other chemo symptoms, which all got better after finishing treatment.  I think I never did/never will fully recover from many of those side effects. But, that’s OK. :)

    @chgoliz: Who knows, maybe what you thought were “age-related minor complaints” were really effects of the cancer, explaining why they got better after treatment.

    1. Thanks for responding….in fact, they were secondary effects of an auto-immune disorder I’ve had for many years.  Killing off fast-growing cells affects a lot of different parts of the body, including non-cancer cells.

  6. I kept hoping for superpowers, myself.  I had a top five list during my treaments for Mantle Cell Lymphoma.  Didn’t happen, of course, and I do have the “chemo brain” side effects still.  But I’m not dying, and that’s a fair trade indeed.

  7. Radiation will do similar things for you.  I remember 14 years ago, somewhere around 5 weeks into the daily radiation regime, I was sitting there, staring vacantly through this gray mental haze, and thinking “This is what it’s going to feel like to be 90.”  And that was on a relatively small radiation dose! 

    I was deathly afraid I would never regain my former sharpness, but for me it wore off eventually.  It’s sobering though, to remember that insight: we’re all just “temporarily able-bodied”, and able-brained.

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