Unlocking ‘Chemo-Brain’: The Role of Calcium in Cognitive Challenges During Cancer Treatment

Unlocking ‘Chemo-Brain’: The Role of Calcium in Cognitive Challenges During Cancer Treatment

Understanding ‘Chemo-Brain’: The Link to Calcium and Potential Treatments

A significant number of cancer patients, estimated at 75,000, experience a phenomenon known as ‘chemo-brain’ during their treatment.

This condition refers to memory and attention problems that frequently arise during cancer therapy.

Recent research conducted by American scientists has uncovered a potential cause for these cognitive issues, suggesting that an excess of calcium within the brain may be the underlying factor.

Calcium’s Crucial Role

Calcium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in maintaining bone health and acts as a critical messenger within various cells throughout the body.

However, excessive accumulation of calcium is a known issue in patients with conditions like heart failure and atrial fibrillation, a disorder characterized by irregular heartbeats.

Chemotherapy and ‘Calcium Leaks’

Scientists from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have made a noteworthy discovery.

They found that chemotherapy can induce ‘calcium leaks’ within the brain, which may be responsible for the cognitive problems experienced by some cancer patients.

The Impact on Mice

In experiments involving mice, researchers observed that the animals subjected to chemotherapy displayed memory problems.

They struggled to navigate mazes and overcome obstacles, mirroring the cognitive difficulties reported by human cancer patients.

Importantly, the scientists also identified a drug under development that could reduce these calcium leaks and mitigate cognitive symptoms in the mice.

Dr. Andrew Marks’ Perspective

Dr. Andrew Marks, a professor of physiology and cellular biophysics and co-author of the study, emphasized the clinical significance of addressing ‘chemo-brain.’

He noted that cancer patients frequently mention cognitive issues, often referred to as “brain-fog,” as one of the challenges they face.

However, these problems are often overlooked in a busy clinical setting.

Dr. Marks acknowledged the substantial unmet clinical need for addressing these cognitive deficits.

Implications for Cognitive Deficits

This research further supports the idea that calcium leaks play a crucial role in cognitive deficits not only in cancer patients but also in individuals with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, long Covid, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Excess calcium within cells is a common feature in these cognitive conditions.

Cancer Patients’ Experience

According to estimates from Cancer Research UK, approximately 28% of the nearly 400,000 Britons diagnosed with cancer each year receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment.

Of these individuals, about three-quarters report memory and cognitive problems.

Fortunately, in most cases, these issues tend to resolve within six to nine months after completing the chemotherapy.

Other common side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, fatigue, and hair loss.


The research shedding light on the link between ‘chemo-brain’ and calcium leaks offers hope for potential treatments to restore cognitive function in cancer patients.

Understanding the underlying mechanisms of cognitive deficits in cancer therapy can have broad implications for addressing similar issues in other health conditions.

This study underscores the importance of paying attention to patients’ experiences and addressing unmet clinical needs, such as cognitive problems in cancer therapy.

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