CANCER
May 27, 2013

Brain Training for Breast Cancer Survivors

Cognition-boosting programs might help improve “chemo brain” in women who have had breast cancer.

The emergence of cognition-enhancing games in recent years has led to a multimillion-dollar brain game industry — and a lot of controversy. Some scientific studies have found no evidence that programs designed to enhance cognition actually do so in any kind of meaningful way — although it can certainly make you better at the particular game you’re playing — while others have hinted that they may have some positive effect.

A new study suggests that the brain-boosting program, Lumosity, may indeed provide some benefit for what’s often referred to as “chemo brain” in women who are breast cancer survivors.

As many as 75% of women who undergo chemotherapy may experience negative cognitive side effects including mental confusion, disorganization, and concentration and memory problems. Fatigue, learning problems and difficulty recalling events and words are also common. “The most common quality-of-life complaint from breast cancer survivors is the cognitive effect of cancer treatments,” said Joe Hardy, the VP of Research & Development at Lumosity.

In addition to the psychological stress that cognitive problems can cause for a person, they have major financial impact on society. In 2010 the NIH estimated that loss of productivity associated with cancer was a whopping $20.9 billion.

A team of Stanford University researchers, not associated with Lumosity in any way, tested the program by focusing on a group of breast cancer survivors, all over 40 years old and at least 18 months removed from their last round of chemotherapy.

Half of the women played various Lumosity training games four times per week for 12 weeks. The remaining women were placed on a wait-list and didn’t receive any training during the study period. Women in the Lumosity group did various tasks, involving working memory, spatial rotation, spatial sequencing, and word stem completion.

All the women were given standard psychometric tests before and after the study period to gauge different aspects of their cognitive function.

Those in the Lumosity group made significant improvements in executive function, processing speed, and verbal fluency, compared to the wait-list group; they also showed a small improvement in verbal memory, which was not specifically trained and rated their day-to-day symptoms as improving after they completed the program.

“These results are interesting,” says Hardy, “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 results suggest that the program could help address this common, real-world problem, according to the researchers. In addition to the psychological stress that cognitive problems can cause for a person, they have major financial impact on society. In 2010 the NIH estimated that loss of productivity associated with cancer was a whopping $20.9 billion, and the authors say that much of this may have come from the cognitive difficulties. They hope that future studies will be larger and longer-term and that brain imaging might give us some clues about how these programs could be affecting a person neurologically.

The study was published in Clinical Breast Cancer.

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