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Investigating Chemotherapy’s Effects on the Brain

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:31 AM EDT

As most of us know, a laundry list of side effects have been linked to chemotherapy. And while many of these side effects drastically reduce the quality of life in the short-term, the good news is that most of these symptoms eventually subside once treatment concludes.

However, while fatigue, hair loss and other symptoms dissipate, many cancer survivors continue to complain about an overall clouded mental capacity months and years following treatment. Unfortunately, the cause of such spaced-out feelings may very well be the result of long-term damage accrued in the brain due to the chemotherapy process.

It has long been known that chemotherapy attacks normal healthy cells as well as cancer cells. It is this fact that leads to the majority of side effects felt from the treatment. While studies on the effects of chemotherapy of the brain are minimal, Dr. Jorg Dietrich of Massachusetts General Hospital believes the progenitor cells in the brain are the cause of “chemobrain” symptoms such as memory loss, problems multitasking and the inability to concentrate.

Progenitor cells are newly born cells that incubate deep in the brain. They are self-renewing, and are a necessary link in the chain when it comes to promoting memory and other brain functions. Unfortunately, these baby cells are also extremely susceptible to the damaging effects of chemotherapy drugs.

As Dr. Dietrich puts it, “If you stop or inhibit the generation of newborn cells in the brain, you will have to deal with the consequences years down the road.”

Of course, the ultimate goal of cancer treatment is to cure the disease with little or no side effects. Ultimately, this may mean identifying alternatives to chemotherapy that minimize the attack of healthy human cells. Until that time, further studies need to be made into the effects of chemo on the brain so that long-term symptoms may eventually be reduced.