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Clin Cancer Res. 2012 Apr 1;18(7):1954-65. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-11-2000. Epub 2012 Feb 14.

Impaired cognitive function and hippocampal neurogenesis following cancer chemotherapy.

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Department of Radiation Oncology, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.



A substantial proportion of breast cancer survivors report significant, long-lasting impairments in cognitive function, often referred to as "chemobrain." Advances in detection and treatment mean that many more patients are surviving long-term following diagnosis of invasive breast cancer. Thus, it is important to define the types, extent, and persistence of cognitive impairments following treatment with cytotoxic cancer drugs.


We examined the effects of chronic treatment with two agents commonly used in patients with breast cancer, cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin (Adriamycin). Athymic nude rats were given 50 mg/kg cyclophosphamide, 2 mg/kg doxorubicin, or saline injections once per week for 4 weeks. A novel place recognition task and contextual and cued fear conditioning were used to characterize learning and memory ability. Immunofluorescence staining for immature and mature neurons and activated microglia was used to assess changes in neurogenesis and neuroinflammation.


Cyclophosphamide- and doxorubicin-treated rats showed significantly impaired performance on the novel place recognition task and the contextual fear conditioning task compared with untreated controls, suggesting disrupted hippocampal-based memory function. Chemotherapy-treated animals showed a significant decline in neurogenesis [80%-90% drop in bromodeoxyuridine (BrdUrd)-labeled cells expressing NeuN]. Activated microglia (ED1-positive) were found after cyclophosphamide but not doxorubicin treatment.


Our results show that chronic treatment with either of two commonly used chemotherapeutic agents impairs cognitive ability and suggest that strategies to prevent or repair disrupted hippocampal neurogenesis may be effective in ameliorating this serious side effect in cancer survivors.

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