In addition to the burden of a life-threatening diagnosis, cancer patients are struggling with adverse side-effects from cancer treatment. Chemotherapy has been linked to an array of cognitive impairments and alterations in brain structure and function (“chemobrain”). In this review, we summarized the existing evidence that evaluate the changes in cognitive functioning and brain with chemotherapy, as assessed using structural and functional MRI-based techniques in a longitudinal design.
This review followed the latest PRISMA guidelines using Embase, Medline, PsychINFO, Scopus, and Web of Science databases with date restrictions from 2012 to 2017. Fourteen research articles met the key inclusion criteria: (i) the studies involved adult cancer patients (mean age ≥ 18); (ii) the use of chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer; (iii) pre-post assessment of behavioral and brain-based outcomes; and (iv) abstracts written in English. Effect sizes of subjective and objective cognitive impairments from the reviewed studies were estimated using Cohen’s d or z-scores. We calculated percentage of mean change or effect sizes for main neuroimaging findings when data were available. Strength of the correlations between brain alterations and cognitive changes was obtained using squared correlation coefficients.
Small to medium effect sizes were shown? on individual tests of attention, processing speed, verbal memory, and executive control; and medium effect sizes on self-report questionnaires. Neuroimaging data showed reduced grey matter density in cancer patients in frontal, parietal, and temporal regions. Changes in brain function (brain activation and cerebral blood flow) were observed with cancer across functional networks involving (pre)frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal, and cerebellar regions. Data from diffusion-weighted MRI suggested reduced white matter integrity involving the superior longitudinal fasciculus, corpus callosum, forceps major, and corona radiate, and altered structural connectivity across the whole brain network. Finally, we observed moderate-to-strong correlations between worsening cognitive function and morphological changes in frontal brain regions.
While MRI is a powerful tool for detection of longitudinal brain changes in the ‘chemobrain’, the underlying biological mechanisms are still unclear. Continued work in this field will hopefully detect MRI metrics to be used as biomarkers to help guide cognitive treatment at the individual cancer patient level.