New study bolsters UCI Health ‘chemo brain’ findings

November 17, 2011
Dr. Daniela Bota & Dr. Mark Linskey

For years, doctors doubted the existence of “chemo brain,” a condition in which many cancer patients described a loss of memory and mental function after undergoing chemotherapy.

A study published this week in Archives of Neurology lends evidence to the existence of chemo brain. Volunteers took a series of tests that measured different brain functions, including one in which an MRI machine recorded their brain activity. The research included breast cancer survivors who had surgery and chemotherapy, survivors who had surgery but no chemotherapy, and women with no history of breast cancer but whose ages, education and menopausal status were similar to those of the women who had chemo. The study authors said the findings suggest that chemotherapy may cause neurotoxic brain injury.

UC Irvine’s Dr. Daniela Bota was not involved in this study but says the findings are not a surprise.

“Doctors used to think the cognitive effects of chemotherapy were psychological, a form of depression,” says Bota, a professor of neurology and one of only 300 neuro-oncologists in the U.S. “But we’re finding a biological basis.”

She and neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Linskey, co-directors of UC Irvine's Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, have discovered that certain chemotherapeutic agents destroy the stem cells in the brain that would have become neurons for creating and storing memories.

In laboratory studies on healthy brain stem cells and those that cause gliomas, or brain cancer, Bota and Linskey found that two widely used chemotherapies profoundly damaged healthy neural stem cells but had little effect on brain tumor stem cells. Two newer chemotherapy drugs they tested that specifically target tumor cell proteins, however, caused little or no harm to neural stem cells while wiping out the tumor’s stem cells.

The results—published earlier this year in Neurology—are causing a stir in the neurology and oncology communities and, if confirmed in clinical trials, point to the use of less-toxic chemotherapies in future cancer patients.

Abstract of Archives of Neurology ‘chemo brain’ study ›

Finding by UC Irvine physicians could help eliminate ‘chemo brain’ ›

Are stem cells a weapon in war on chemo brain? ›