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Dear Pharmacist Supplements for chemo brain and memory loss

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Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013 7:12 am

Dear Pharmacist: My partner has cancer and is receiving chemotherapy. She’s responding well but now has trouble with simple math, decision-making, and she doesn’t finish her sentences. Can chemo do that?  — B.G., San Diego

Answer: Scientists are still trying understand the phenomenon your partner describes, which they call “chemo brain.”  It happens to also affect seniors and those with chronic infections and illnesses.

Even with modern technology, such as MRIs, the exact cause of chemo brain has evaded scientists. You see, even with an MRI scan, only minor differences in the brain are seen before and after chemotherapy, and nothing definitively points to the cause of “chemo brain,” making it hard to treat.

Alright, pop quiz time: Do you know that your brain needs glucose in order to work, grow and think? It’s true! Your noggin uses more than 20 percent of the fuel derived from the food you eat. Fuel is equal to glucose in this case. Knowing this tidbit, scientists recently made a discovery that will help chemo brain sufferers.

Researchers at the Virginia University School of Medicine tried a different approach. Instead of looking at still shots of the brain with an MRI (before and after chemo), they watched how the brain uses glucose derived from the meals their patients ate. They used a specialized scanning device (PET scan), along with CT scans and discovered that certain parts of your brain light up brightly when glucose is utilized. These brighter areas show the regions of the brain that are actively “eating” glucose.  It’s a good thing, it’s you want because it means that your brain is working properly. Glucose feeds the brain.

Interestingly, the brains of chemotherapy-treated patients still lit up, but they were much duller in brightness, indicating less activity. Incredibly, the duller areas are the regions of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making, and that’s exactly what “chemo brain” sufferers complain about. The researchers are not exactly sure why this happens, it could be related to excessive cytokine production or nerve unraveling (demyelination) but nevertheless, it validates so many of you who have asked me to help you with memory loss, poor concentration, inability to solve problems, and general cognitive decline after receiving chemotherapy.

So what can you do to help your partner with chemo brain? First, point out to her that it may get better after completion of the chemo. Next, increase colorful fruits and vegetables in the diet, keeping it free of anything refined or processed.

Exercising 30 minutes a day can improve chemo brain by shuttling more glucose to the brain. There are supplements at health food stores, or online that nourish the brain, providing more glucose and improved blood flow. Ask your oncologist if some of the following would be beneficial for you: vinpocetine, ginkgo biloba, bacopa, phosphatidylserine, coconut oil and DHA. In fact, any of you with memory loss should ask your doctor about these supplements.

This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. For more information about Suzy Cohen, visit her website at



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