Researchers may have found a solution for chemo-brain

One of breast cancer’s biggest survivorship problems could be solved with brain exercises.

As many as 70% of cancer patients report memory loss, an inability to concentrate, impaired problem solving abilities, or some other kind of cognitive impairment after chemotherapy. In New Zealand, that’s over 700 women every year, some of whom have symptoms so severe they’re never able to go back to work.

To make things worse, ER+ breast cancer patients are recommended 5-10 years of endocrine therapy (tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors), which can have similar effects on memory and concentration.

All of these problems can lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue, and a diminished quality of life.

Fortunately, now that treatment has improved and many breast cancer patients are living long, healthy lives, researchers have begun to tackle survivorship problems – issues like chemo-brain, and the memory and concentration problems that come with long-term use or tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors.

One of the Australian research groups tackling this problem has taken an innovative approach to the issue: using brain exercises to strengthen memory, attention and processing speed.

Insight, a brain rehabilitation programme developed by American company Brain HQ, was tested by 242 adults, 89% of which were breast cancer patients. Half the group practiced on the programme four times a week, for 40 minutes at a time, for a total of 15 weeks, and half the group had normal care.

The patients assigned to brain training felt that their memory, and their ability to concentrate and problem solve was improved significantly by taking part in the programme. Further, the brain training group reported less anxiety, stress and fatigue after they’d completed the programme. These effects were still present six months after finishing the trial.

There are a few caveats here to consider. Participants reported that their cognitive function had improved after completing the training, but only half completed the test measuring their actual abilities. The data from that test didn’t show a measureable improvement in cognitive function.

This may because only a small portion of the participants took the test, or because the test wasn’t specific enough to detect the kind of changes cancer survivors usually experience (this has been shown in research before). Regardless of the reasons why, the important result is that these participants felt that their cognitive function had improved, which alone improved their quality of life.

It’s also worth noting that trial was aimed at tackling cognitive problems after chemotherapy, but the majority of the participants were also on some sort of hormone therapy. Because of this, we believe the brain training programme could be effective for treating both chemo-brain, and cognitive side-effects from hormone therapy use.

If you want to try the brain exercises that the participants in this trial trained on, you can. The five exercises used in the research are part of the Brain HQ training program, and can be done on a computer at home, making them accessible to almost all NZ breast cancer patients. You can buy a subscription to for around $11-18 NZD per month. In the trial, the participants were recommended 40 minutes of training, 4 days a week.

If you decide to try the training, let us know if it helps. Email