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Mental-training Exercises Help Mitigate Effects of “Chemo Brain”

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Published March 10, 2015

UCLA Health
David Geffen School of Medicine
David Geffen School of Medicine

U Magazine

UCLA researchers have developed a program that could improve the day-to-day lives of women with breast cancer by addressing post-treatment cognitive difficulties, sometimes known as “chemo brain,” which can affect up to 35 percent of women after their treatments.

An estimated one-in-eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and following chemotherapy treatment, a mental fogginess can prevent them from being able to concentrate, stay organized and complete everyday activities, such as sticking to a schedule or planning a family gathering.
The study builds upon earlier research that found a statistically significant association between neuropsychological test performance and memory complaints among women with early-stage breast cancer following treatment.

“We invited the women to participate in a research study that assigned them to early or delayed treatment with a five-week, two-hour group training session, where a psychologist taught them strategies to help them with their memory and maintain their ability to pay attention to things,” says Patricia Ganz, MD ’73 (RES ’76, FEL ’78), director of prevention and control research at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “These are activities we call executive function and planning, or the things all of us do in order to organize our day.”

The brain image on the left shows how women with breast cancer who had a series of mental training exercises experienced fewer problems with memory and concentration. Graphic: Courtesy of Dr. Patricia Ganz

Linda Ercoli, PhD, associate clinical professor of health sciences at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, was responsible for the development of the cognitive-rehabilitation intervention program. “We gave women exercises on, for example, how to remember a ‘to-do’ list, remembering to buy items at the store or planning a party and deciding what type of food should be served to guests,” Dr. Ercoli says. “Participants were given real-life tasks to complete that would use these types of strategies to improve cognitive function.” The intervention program also included homework and practice activities that the participants would discuss at the weekly sessions.

Drs. Ganz and Ercoli found that the 32 women in the early-intervention group reported improvement in memory complaints and test functioning, while the 16 women in the delayed intervention control group did not improve in either their cognitive complaints or test performance. The intervention-group participants showed continued improvement two months after completion of the rehabilitation program.

“The brain-wave pattern in the intervention group actually normalized,” Dr. Ganz says. “We hope that this might be an effective biologic way to assess the cognitive effects of cancer treatment in the future.”

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