Chemotherapy has various side effects. Some people receiving this treatment may experience issues with memory and cognition.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that stops or slows cancer cell growth. Some people undergoing chemotherapy develop cognitive side effects, or “chemo brain.” This condition, also known as cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI), affects brain function and may cause issues with memory and concentration.

Certain drugs have a “cytotoxic” effect, which means they kill or damage cells. Chemotherapy uses certain cytotoxic drugs to target cancer cells. These drugs can also damage healthy cells. This may sometimes lead to adverse side effects throughout the body, including the brain, causing chemo brain.

People with chemo brain may have trouble remembering things or learning new skills. In most cases, chemo brain resolves quickly, but it can last longer for some people.

This article looks at what chemo brain is and why it occurs.

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The term “chemo brain” refers to the negative cognitive effects of chemotherapy. People with chemo brain can experience issues with attention, focus, executive function, and memory.

Estimates of prevalence vary widely. One 2021 review of cognitive issues following breast cancer treatment suggests estimates of between 36% and 77%.

It may be challenging to determine how many people experience chemo brain because the symptoms are frequently mild and hard to recognize.

The symptoms of chemo brain may look different for everyone. Possible symptoms may include:

  • forgetfulness
  • trouble following conversations
  • difficulties with multitasking
  • fatigue
  • confusion
  • problems with focus
  • difficulties with remembering familiar words

People with chemo brain may have trouble with language, memory, and processing speed. This can have a negative effect on relationships and the person’s sense of self.

Although the symptoms of chemo brain may vary, they can make it difficult to carry out daily activities. People experiencing these symptoms should speak with a medical professional. Support is available to help manage the symptoms of chemo brain.

Experts believe that cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs are responsible for chemo brain.

A 2017 study on mice notes that exposure to chemotherapy leads to changes in DNA., which may have a negative effect on brain function.

Certain chemotherapy drugs can also affect signaling between different molecules in the body. Signal disruption may also lead to chemo brain.

Research into the causes of chemo brain remains limited. And causes may differ depending on the person and the type of chemotherapy drug they receive.

People experiencing the symptoms of chemo brain should visit a medical professional for a full evaluation.

A medical professional may use a questionnaire that measures different chemo brain symptoms to determine if a person is experiencing this chemotherapy side effect. They may also conduct an interview to test language and memory skills.

Chemo brain can make it difficult to carry out everyday tasks. Taking measures to manage chemo brain symptoms can help.

Some at-home strategies for managing chemo brain include:

  • writing down daily to-do lists
  • using sticky notes to keep track of important reminders
  • setting cell phone alarms for appointments or meetings
  • keeping a diary of symptoms to track these over time
  • taking time to rest
  • asking for support from friends and family

One 2021 study suggests that physical activity may help improve cognitive function during chemotherapy.

There are also a number of different therapeutic options for chemo brain. For example, some people benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Others may find that regular brain training methods can help manage symptoms.

Many people with chemo brain experience mild symptoms that resolve on their own. But chemo brain can cause noticeable impairment and mental health decline in some cases.

Some people with chemo brain may also develop depression and anxiety because it can make it more difficult to carry out usual activities and maintain relationships.

Additionally, chemo brain can sometimes cause long-term cognitive effects. Although many cases of chemo brain resolve quickly, they can persist for years in some people.

There is currently no way to prevent chemo brain. However, experts believe that certain lifestyle changes may help prevent serious cognitive issues from developing.

A 2020 review suggests that dietary changes may reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs. Following a healthy diet may decrease chemotherapy side effects like chemo brain.

Another study from 2021 examined whether exercise could help reduce chemotherapy side effects. Researchers found that regular physical activity may improve cognitive function during and after chemotherapy.

Chemo brain can look different from person to person. The severity of this side effect and how long it lasts depends on the individual and the type of chemotherapy they receive.

Most people experience chemo brain symptoms during treatment. But more than a third may experience symptoms several months after treatment ends.

The following are questions people frequently ask about chemo brain.

Does chemo brain ever go away?

Chemo brain tends to resolve with time for most people. However, in rare cases, chemo brain can last for many years.

How does chemo affect the brain?

Researchers have found that chemotherapy drugs can damage DNA and other molecules in the brain. This damage may lead to cognitive difficulties. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

Why does chemo brain occur?

Chemo brain may occur as a side effect of certain chemotherapy drugs. Other factors that can lead to chemo brain include older age, mental health conditions, hormonal changes, or sleep disturbances.

Is chemo brain a form of dementia?

Chemo brain is not a form of dementia. Most people who experience chemo brain eventually recover. However, evidence suggests that some types of chemotherapy can increase the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Chemo brain is a common side effect of chemotherapy. It can cause issues with memory, focus, and executive planning.

In most people, symptoms resolve on their own without treatment. People may also find that eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help reduce the negative effects of chemotherapy.