New evidence of 'chemo brain' proves cognitive damage from cancer treatment isn't 'all in your head'

Image: RSNA. The bright yellow and lime green in the left superior medial frontal gyrus sharply contrast the cool blue hues in the same region on the right. The brain uses glucose for energy; bright colors represent large decreases in glucose usage by the brain.

Cancer survivors everywhere are nodding in agreement today: "chemo brain" is real, as those of us who have experienced the cognitive damage associated with chemotherapy already know. Memory loss, problems with concentration and attention, speech and writing difficulties, even problems with everyday math or number identification are common during and long after chemo ends. But now, researchers understand a little more of the how and why.

As noted in my previous Boing Boing post, a new study presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) used PET/CT scans to show physiological evidence of chemo brain, a common side effect in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment.

The team led by Dr. Rachel A. Lagos at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown, W.V. sought to identify the effect of chemotherapy on brain function, rather its effect on the brain's appearance. By using PET/CT, they were able to assess changes to the brain's metabolism after chemotherapy, and found measurable physiological changes.

In a group of 128 breast cancer patients, neuroradiology analysis software was used to calculate brain metabolism within 63 brain regions. Results were clinically correlated with documented patient history, neurologic examinations, and chemotherapy regimens. In women treated for breast cancer, the scans demonstrate "statistically significant decreases in regional brain metabolism" that correlate to "chemotherapy regimen, neurological examination and symptoms of chemobrain phenomenon."

On NBC Nightly News, cancer survivor and advocate Jody Schoger, whom I met on Twitter during my treatment, speaks about her experience with chemo brain and what the news means to her. She's an eloquent, powerful voice for all of us who suffer through the long-term side effects of treatment, and the challenges of living with this disease. NBC's science correspondent Robert Bazell did a great job with the story. You really gotta see this piece.

Below, the piece that ran on NBC Nightly News last night, followed by a longer-form edit of Jody's observations on how we heal from chemobrain. In a word: gradually.

Image: RSNA. A map shows the front of the brain with bright yellow and lime green hues predominating along the left half of the brain medially. This region corresponds to the left superior medial frontal gyrus, the part of the brain known for its role in prioritizing thoughts and actions.