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December 9, 2018

A New Potential to Clear the Fog of “Chemobrain”

Up to 60% of cancer survivors report ongoing memory, learning and concentration problems, which can persist for years after their treatment. Until recently, this was thought to be due to chemotherapy, and was termed “chemobrain”. However, recent studies have shown that these symptoms can also be seen after hormonal therapy, surgery or radiation. Indeed, the cognitive changes can occur even before treatment, which led NBCF-funded researcher Dr. Adam Walker to suspect the cancer alone was at fault.

Dr. Walker, along with colleagues at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and Monash University, will today publish their findings into “tumour-to-brain communication”, or how cancer cells can impact brain function. In a breakthrough, they have discovered that breast cancer cells release inflammatory markers that travel to the brain and lead to chemobrain symptoms.

The study has shown that it is possible to use low dose anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin) to block this process and prevent the cognitive problems without causing other side effects. This ground-breaking discovery means that there is the potential to alleviate chemobrain symptoms, without interfering with cancer treatment.

“Interventions to treat cancer-induced cognitive impairment have so far focused on behavioural therapies such as brain training, which don’t tap into the biological processes of tumour-to-brain communication,” said Dr Walker. “This is the first study to show that we can potentially disrupt that communication using anti-inflammatory agents.”

The study has the potential to eradicate the cognitive impairment that many people with cancer suffer, however more research is needed. First, Dr. Walker and his team will further investigate how the anti-inflammatory drugs work to protect the brain from inflammation in studies of individual cells. Once the mechanism is more thoroughly understood, a larger clinical trial will take place to assess whether these effects are also seen in people with cancer.

“Chemobrain has long been an issue for breast cancer patients who have been treated with chemotherapy,” said Dr Chris Pettigrew, NBCF Director of Research Investment. “This new development is a big win for research and for the 68,824 Australians living with breast cancer.”

This study was funded by NBCF and the results were published in PLOS ONE.