Chemotherapy does great things for many types of cancer, but it can also do terrible things to the patients surviving those cancers. Chemotherapy can make them vomit, and lose their hair. Patients may become fatigued, depressed, asthenic, anorexic, and nauseated even on good days … and then there is chemo brain  — often referred to as cancer-induced cognitive impairment. Studies show that 21% to 90% of patients report having experienced chemo brain, with symptoms sometimes lasting for up to 20 years after treatment.1

Diane Von Ah, PhD, first began investigating the fatigue experienced by women undergoing treatment for breast cancer when she was studying for her doctorate at the School of Nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Patients described having difficulty thinking clearly after having been treated with chemotherapy.

Approximately 20 years on, Dr Von Ah, as well as many other researchers, found that results of neuropsychological and subjective tests demonstrate that breast cancer survivors experience significant deficits in memory compared with women who did not have cancer.2

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Brain Exercises Emerge

Neuroscientists have long been intrigued by the concept of brain plasticity — the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Michael Merzenich, PhD, a neuroscientist and recipient of the Kavli Prize, the highest honor in neuroscience, discovered that plasticity is a lifelong phenomenon, and was the first to harness it when he co-invented the cochlear implant. He is also a pioneer in developing plasticity-based computerized brain exercises. Through his studies on brain plasticity, Dr Merzenich developed computerized brain training exercises that could rewire the human brain through intensive adaptive practice, leading to a brain that is faster and more accurate — and as a result, has sharper cognitive abilities.

Dr Merzenich also founded Posit Science, a company dedicated to developing brain exercises that correctly implement the principles of brain plasticity. Fellow neuroscientist Henry Mahncke, PhD, led the development of the company’s global clinical trials team. To date, the team has had more than 100 peer-reviewed studies published showing the effectiveness of brainHQ, a series of cognitive training exercises based on brain plasticity. Their work is now focusing on getting the science out of the lab and into the hands of the people it can help.

A number of independent academic scientists have also used the brainHQ exercises in their own clinical trials. In particular, Dr Von Ah, now at Indiana University, and colleagues and Janette Vardy, BMed(Hons), FRACP, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Sydney conducted clinical trials — funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, respectively — using brainHQ exercises to see if this approach could help improve cognitive function in cancer survivors.

Both of these gold-standard, randomized, controlled trials demonstrated that cancer survivors, notably breast cancer survivors, demonstrated improvements in cognitive function, with broad improvements in quality of life, stress, depression, and other real-world concerns. Dr Von Ah’s study demonstrated that breast cancer survivors who practiced a specific set of 5 brain exercises in a group setting had improved core cognitive abilities, such as speed and memory, as well as improved general quality of life measures, such as stress and anxiety. Dr Vardy’s study showed that cancer survivors practicing the brain exercises in their own homes had improved cognitive function and less anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Creative people often notice a change in cognitive function after cancer. Because these patients tend to start from a relatively high level of cognitive function, they may still produce test results within the normal range for memory, attention, and speed. However, this does not accurately reflect the change from what had been their normal functioning. The brain exercises can be a critical tool to help them get back to where they were before their illness.