A study published in today’s Journal of Biology discovered exactly how the chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) causes memory problems, cognitive difficulties and an effect called “chemo brain” even after treatment has subsided.
According to this Health Day article, about 50 percent of women who had undergone chemotherapy treatments with this particular drug reported cognitive problems a year after treatment ended. The study, by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in and Harvard Medical School, found that long-term cellular damage from use of the drug is actually worse than the short-term, worsening after treatment ends. Whereas doctors previously questioned whether chemo brain was a result of the treatment or cancer itself, the knowledge of damage caused by treatment with this single drug will help them find ways to preserve cognitive functioning by decreasing or eliminating damage done.
Other studies have shown that chemotherapy drugs are more toxic to healthy brain cells than to the very cancer cells they are intended to treat. The new study helps explain why the cognitive effects persist – finding that 5-FU damaged specific kinds of cells in the central nervous system and another type of cells that produce the fatty substance that coats nerve cells and facilitates communication between cells.
While the study by no means indicates that everyone who receives this drug as chemotherapy treatment will develop cognitive issues or chemo brain, it shows that there is a physiological basis for the effect – rather than previously questioned issued of depression or personal emotions. The article said researchers are looking at determining how exactly the damage occurs in future studies.