PTSD Contributes to Chemobrain in Cancer Patients

Mild cognitive impairment can set in prior to the start of therapy.

Mild cognitive impairment can set in prior to the start of therapy.

A cancer diagnosis can be such a traumatic experience that patients may actually suffer from mild cognitive effects as a result, a recent study indicates.

In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers evaluated the cause of mild attention deficit, memory problems, and other interruptions to basic cognitive functions. These conditions are generally linked to chemotherapeutic drug side effects, commonly referred to as chemobrain.

Recent studies have found symptoms of chemobrain in patients prior to receiving a course of chemotherapy, however. For the current study that evaluated breast cancer patients, researchers found pretreatment cognitive impairment is most likely a result of posttraumatic stress disorder brought on by the diagnosis of the disease.

"Cancer patients can perceive and experience their condition as a severe trauma. Indeed, many of them develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in the early phase after they receive the diagnosis," lead researcher Kerstin Hermelink, MD, said in a press release. "Stress has a very considerable influence on cognitive performance and definitely impacts on brain function, so it was quite natural for us to ask whether the cognitive deficiencies displayed by many breast cancer patients might not be attributable to the stress that is inevitably associated with malignant disease."

The researchers evaluated 166 women diagnosed with breast cancer and 60 women who received breast cancer screening with no signs of disease. The participants were evaluated 3 times during the first year after the diagnosis.

Before treatment began, both study arms showed similar levels of performance on standard cognitive tests except for a specific attention test, in which the breast cancer patients had a significantly higher error rate.

"As we suspected at the outset, the higher failure rate in this test could be linked to post-traumatic stress -- the greater the level of stress, the more errors they made, and statistical analysis confirmed that the correlation was highly significant," Dr. Hermelink said.