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MDLinxResearch Implicates Calcium in ‘Chemobrain,’ Pointing the Way Toward Potential Therapy

Calcium Overload: Unraveling the Mystery of Chemobrain and Its Potential Links to Other Cognitive Disorders

A recent study has shed light on the phenomenon of “chemobrain,” a cognitive impairment experienced by some cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The research, conducted by investigators at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, suggests that an excess of calcium inside cells may be the culprit.

Key Points

  • “Chemobrain” can consist of deficits in memory, attention, and executive function.
  • The study reveals that “chemobrain” may be caused by an excess of calcium floating around inside cells.
  • Calcium is controlled by ryanodine receptors that lie inside cells and control the amount of calcium in the cell.
  • Sometimes these receptors get stuck in the open position, allowing too much calcium to flow inside cells at an uncontrolled rate.
  • This leak of calcium was first discovered in heart failure but has also been linked to cognitive decline that accompanies heart failure, post-traumatic stress disorder, long COVID, and Alzheimer’s.
  • A chemotherapy treatment causes calcium leaks in the brain and neurocognitive dysfunction in mice with breast cancer and in healthy mice.
  • An experimental drug under development was able to reduce both the calcium leak in the brain and neurocognitive symptoms in mice.

“As a clinician, one of the things I ask my patients with cancer is ‘What is the thing that affects you most in daily life?’ They say either brain fog or weakness, and those are things that a busy clinician typically doesn’t have time to address. It’s a very important clinical problem with a huge unmet clinical need.”
— Theresa Guise, MD, MD Anderson

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