Executive function in breast cancer survivors improved by cognitive training

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Cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, and processing speed were improved in women whose breast cancer had been treated with chemotherapy and who used exercises to improve executive function, according to a new study. Further, significant improvements occurred in self-reported measures of everyday executive function, and some transfer to verbal memory occurred.

Chemotherapy is known to change brain structure and function. The most common effects of the cognitive impairment associated with cancer treatment include memory, processing speed, and attention. Up to 75% of women who have undergone chemotherapy to treat breast cancer experience long-term cognitive deficits that significantly reduce quality of life.

"The most common quality-of-life complaint from breast cancer survivors is the cognitive effect of cancer treatments," said Joe Hardy, PhD, VP of Research & Development at Lumosity, which developed the exercises in the study. "These results are interesting because they suggest that online cognitive training shows promise as an intervention for cognitive difficulties in breast cancer survivors, and even long-term survivors can benefit."

The study included 41 breast cancer survivors who were randomly assigned to the active treatment group (n=21) and a 12-week wait list (n= 20). Study participants had a history of stages 1–3 breast cancer and treatment, a minimum age of 40, and were at least 18 months postchemotherapy to allow for neural stabilization. They completed a session of five exercises four times a week for 12 weeks, with each session lasting approximately 20–30 minutes. Training tasks included switching, mental rotation, working memory, spatial sequencing, word stem completion, route planning, and rule-based puzzle solving tasks available on lumosity.com.

The effects of the Lumosity training program were measured by conducting a pretest before and a posttest after completion of the training program using psychometrically validated and standardized cognitive tests. The active treatment group experienced significantly larger gains on measures of executive function, word finding and processing speed, and a trending improvement on verbal memory, compared to the wait list control group. The active group also showed reduced self-rated symptoms of everyday executive function problems.
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