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The Workings Behind 'Chemo Brain'

The Workings Behind ‘Chemo Brain’

A new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) confirms that cancer patients going through chemotherapy are very likely to experience excessive mind wandering and an inability to concentrate, a condition known as “chemo brain.”

The negative cognitive effects of chemotherapy have long been suspected, but the study is the first to explain why patients have difficulty paying attention.

“A healthy brain spends some time wandering and some time engaged,” said Dr. Todd Handy, a professor of psychology at UBC. “We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut-out mode.”

For the research, breast cancer survivors were asked to perform a set of tasks while investigators in the Departments of Psychology and Physical Therapy monitored their brain activity. The findings revealed that the brains of patients with chemo brain lack the ability for sustained focused thought.

Handy goes on to explain that a healthy brain functions in a cyclic way. People will generally focus on a task and be completely engaged for a few seconds and then let their mind wander a bit.

The research team that included former Ph.D. student Julia Kam, the first author of the study, found that chemo brains tend to stay in a disengaged state. Furthermore, even when women believed that they were focusing on a task, the measurements indicated that a large part of their brain was actually turned off and their mind was wandering.

The findings also showed that these patients were more focused on their inner world. When the women were not completing a task and were simply relaxing, their brains were more active compared to healthy women.

These findings could help healthcare providers measure the effects of chemotherapy on the brain, noted Dr. Kristin Campbell, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and leader of the research team.

“Physicians now recognize that the effects of cancer treatment persist long after its over and these effects can really impact a person’s life,” said Campbell.

Tests designed to identify other cognitive disorders such as brain injury or Alzheimer’s have proven ineffective for measuring chemo brain. Cancer survivors seem able to complete these tests but then struggle to cope at work or in social situations because they find they are forgetful.

“These findings could offer a new way to test for chemo brain in patients and to monitor if they are getting better over time,” said Campbell, who also conducts research to determine whether exercise can improve cognitive function for women suffering from chemo brain.

Source: University of British Columbia

The Workings Behind ‘Chemo Brain’

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). The Workings Behind ‘Chemo Brain’. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Apr 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.