Is exercise the antidote to “chemo brain”?

USC researcher to investigate how exercise impacts cognitive function in women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy. 

November 1, 2018

Some call it “chemo brain;” others, “chemo fog.” Science-types refer to it as “chemo-related cognitive impairment” or “cognitive dysfunction.”

It’s the confusion, difficulty concentrating and short-term memory loss that can often accompany chemotherapy — and it might just be manageable with high-intensity interval training.

That’s what Assistant Professor of Research Christina Dieli-Conwright will be investigating in a new study, which recently earned a $162,000 grant from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

“This award builds nicely upon our ongoing investigation — funded by the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute and led by Kyuwan Lee in my lab — examining the benefits of exercise during chemotherapy on cardiovascular impairments,” Dieli-Conwright said. “This award will target an up-and-coming area of cancer research, “neuro-oncology,” where we will focus on whether exercise can mitigate the chemotherapy-induced detriments on brain health.”

Working up a sweat, improving cognition

For the study, Dieli-Conwright and her team will work with 50 sedentary women diagnosed with stage I-III breast cancer, all of whom are undergoing chemotherapy.

The women will be randomly assigned into two groups. One will perform three high-intensity interval training sessions a week for 16 weeks. The other will not change their activity level at all, but will be given the opportunity to participate in the exercise program once the study is completed.

All of the women will be assessed at the study’s beginning and again during week 17, with researchers looking at memory and brain scans.

“We expect to demonstrate that exercise will improve cognitive function in breast cancer survivors undergoing chemotherapy, thereby reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease mortality later in life,” Dieli-Conwright said in her proposal.

Dieli-Conwright will partner with Assistant Professor of Neurology Judy Pa and Professor of Preventive Medicine Wendy Jean Mack for the study.

This study is the latest for the prolific cancer researcher. Earlier this year, she investigated how exercise impacts metabolic syndrome  — a cluster of health conditions that includes high blood pressure, excessive body fat and high cholesterol — that often occurs after breast cancer treatment.

In a Journal of Clinical Oncology article, Dieli-Conwright shared her findings that exercise did in fact improve the women’s conditions related to metabolic syndrome and that they had lost weight and gained muscle.

Most recently, Dieli-Conwright received a $4-million National Institutes of Health to investigate how exercise impacts inflammation levels in adipose tissue, which can lead to cancer recurrence.