Nurse_administers_chemotherapyChemotherapy is the leading cancer treatment, with about 650,000 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment each year in the United States. Unfortunately, despite its life-saving potential, chemotherapy comes with some nasty side effects– most commonly nausea, fatigue, and hair loss. Another side effect of chemotherapy is cognitive impairment, better known as chemo brain. Now, researchers from the University of Kansas have presented studies suggesting there may be a drug that can counteract chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment. 

As common as chemotherapy treatment is, 1 in 3 of the patients who undergo chemotherapy will experience a decline in their cognitive awareness. The symptoms of chemo brain include memory lapses, difficulty concentrating and processing information, and general confusion.  Anyone who has experienced these symptoms could attest to how disruptive and irritating they are, and while this discovery is by no means a cure to cancer, anything that can in any way improve one’s experience with cancer is good news.

Until recently, scientists have not studied the chemical causes of chemo brain, and only knew about it in the first place from patients complaining of the symptoms. New studies show that a common chemotherapy drug, 5-Fluorouracil, interferes with the hippocampus of the brain, the area responsible for learning and memory, by damaging the structural integrity of myelin, the layer of fats and proteins protecting brain cells. The drug also causes dysfunctions in brain cells’ mitochondria, where nutrients are converted into energy.

These findings  from Michael Johnson and his colleagues at the University of Kansas build upon previous research with lab rats examining the negative effects of chemotherapy on the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role in memory and cognitive ability, while serotonin regulates mood and sleep patterns. Rats that were treated with the chemotherapy compound carboplatin had a decreased release of dopamine and serotonin in their brains compared with rats that did not receive the treatment, releasing 42 percent less dopamine and 55 percent less serotonin.

According to Johnson, this new study takes the research even further:

In our preliminary results, we found that hydrogen peroxide temporarily increases in the brains of chemotherapy-treated rats. Because hydrogen peroxide is a reactive oxygen species and potentially damaging, it may have an effect on cognitive function. Additionally, we may have a therapy that can serve as a preventative in order to treat it. We found that KU-32 prevents cognitive impairment, and our preliminary neurochemical data suggest that it may prevent increases in hydrogen peroxide production.”

Johnson and his colleagues are optimistic that these findings could open new ways of treating the symptoms of chemo brain, and even lead into discoveries for the treatment of other cognitive conditions. Every major scientific discovery begins as a study, and the results of this study have major potential for how patients undergo cancer treatment.