Chemotherapy: what to do against memory loss and cognitive dysfunction?

Some people who receive chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer experience cognitive sequelae following the treatments.

About one-third of cancer patients treated with chemotherapy drugs complain of cognitive problems as a result of these treatments. These problems usually take the form of memory loss, difficulty paying attention and concentrating, an inability to multi-task, and marked changes in mood.

This phenomenon is particularly common among breast cancer survivors and can sometimes last for several years and have serious repercussions on the quality of life of those affected. With the improvement of cancer treatments and the significant increase in the number of people who survive this disease, the cognitive dysfunction that results from chemotherapy therefore represents a serious side effect, which it is important to better understand.

Reduction in brain volume during chemotherapy

The mechanisms remain poorly understood. In the past, it was suggested that these cognitive dysfunctions were associated with psychological factors such as depression and anxiety or even the physical and mental fatigue that often accompanies chemotherapy treatments. However, several studies subsequently demonstrated that cognitive dysfunctions were closely correlated with a drop in performance on very specific neurological tests, indicating that they were truly caused by brain damage.

Moreover, magnetic resonance studies have revealed that chemotherapy can be associated with a reduction in the volume of certain regions of the brain involved in cognitive functions (frontal cortex). The mechanisms involved in this damage remain obscure, but it is suspected that anti-cancer treatments modulate the immune response and cause the release of inflammatory molecules that could reach the brain and alter its structure and functioning.

The cognitive dysfunctions that can be caused by chemotherapy should not, however, encourage patients to avoid these treatments. Despite the side effects associated with it, chemotherapy remains an absolutely essential tool in the treatment of a large number of cancers and whose effectiveness saves countless lives. It is therefore important to follow the recommendations of treating oncologists and to undertake treatments with optimism, while remaining aware of their potential impact on quality of life.

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Some solutions to reduce inflammation

Although there are no pharmacological interventions to treat cognitive dysfunction related to cancer treatment, it is interesting to note that certain aspects of lifestyle are known to reduce post-chemotherapy inflammation and may therefore attenuate the impact on the brain. Clinical trials have clearly demonstrated that regular physical exercise reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines, and this reduction could help reduce the damage to brain structures caused by inflammation. A quality diet rich in plants and devoid of industrial foods high in sugar and bad fats also exerts a powerful anti-inflammatory effect which can help keep inflammatory molecules at a lower level, without negative repercussions for the body. . These lifestyle changes are all the more important as they reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and are associated with better patient survival.


Ganz P et al. Relating neuropsychological test performance to cognitive complaints after breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute


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