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Milwaukee-Based Studies Hope To Better Understand 'Chemo Brain'


Chemotherapy is - in some ways - a medical miracle. It’s proven to kill cancer and every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are helped by these drugs.

But there are also many known side effects to the drugs used in chemotherapy. Perhaps the most noticeable is hair loss, but different kinds of chemotherapy can lead to a variety of life-altering consequences.

Infertility, nerve damage, and anemia are just a few of the many side effects that can come from chemo. Yet another symptom of chemotherapy is the subject of a growing body of research. 

Colloquially known as "chemo brain," these side effects include a variety of symptoms that patients describe as inhibiting their ability to think clearly.

"People often think of it as an attention-related problem, although there are people who have language issues, who have motor-control issues... it can come out in various ways," says Adam Greenberg, an assistant professor psychology at UW-Milwaukee. 

Greenberg and his colleagues at the SNAP Lab are conducting two studies on chemo brain. To date, there has been little research into the effects and impact of this group of symptoms, so many things remain unknown. Greenberg hopes his analyses will give a better picture of which parts of the brain are impacted by chemotherapy and gauge how many people might be experiencing this side effect.

Although the side effects of chemotherapy can seem dire, Greenberg says that chemotherapy is here to stay, so researchers have to focus on mitigating the many side effects associated with chemo drugs. 

He explains, "Chemotherapy works and there’s not going to be any time soon where we’re going to stop giving people chemotherapy because we’re worried about the side effects of the drug. So we need to find a way to deal with the 'chemo brain' symptoms because they’re happening regardless."

Greenberg and his research team are still recruiting volunteers for the study. For more information on how to become involved, click here.

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.