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Clearing the Fog of 'Chemobrain'

A new study from West Virginia University has found that injections of an antioxidant, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), can prevent the memory loss that is sometimes induced by chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer.

In the study, rats were given the chemotherapy drugs adriamycin and cyclophosphamide. While under the influence of the drugs, rats who were specially trained to prefer a light room to a dark room forgot their training.

As many as 40 percent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy complain of the condition known as "chemobrain," according to the WVU authors. Symptoms include reductions in short-term memory and shorter attention spans. As the term "chemobrain" became more widespread — there's even a play by that name — patients expressed increased frustration that their doctors weren't giving enough credence to their complaints.

That's partly because scientists had long suspected that the symptoms were caused by the actual cancer, and not the drugs employed to treat it, but recent research from WVU has documented the extensive changes in the brains of women who received chemotherapy for breast cancer.

"These results clearly indicate that although the carcinoma by itself may cause brain dysfunction, the chemotherapeutics also have a negative effect on the integrity of higher-order brain function," the authors write. "This is an important finding because it proves that chemotherapeutic agents alone, i.e., in the absence of malignancy, can instigate higher-order brain dysfunction, and thus, supports clinical observations."

In a press release, Jame Abraham, director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program at WVU's Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, added: "At this point, we have no evidence to say that NAC is safe in patients who are getting chemotherapy. We need more studies to confirm the role of NAC in patients."

The research appears in the September issue of Metabolic Brain Disease.