It's not clear what causes chemo brain, and no cure has been identified. In most cases, cancer-related memory problems are temporary, so treatment focuses on coping with symptoms.
No standard treatment has been developed for cancer-related memory problems. Because symptoms and severity differ from person to person, your doctor can work with you to develop an individualized approach to coping.
Controlling other causes of memory problems
Cancer and cancer treatment can lead to other conditions, such as anemia, depression, sleep problems and early menopause, which can contribute to memory problems. Controlling these other factors may make it easier to cope with these symptoms.
Learning to adapt and cope with memory changes
A neuropsychologist, who specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect memory and thinking, can create a plan to help you cope with chemo brain symptoms. Doctors sometimes refer to this as cognitive rehabilitation or cognitive remediation.
Learning to adapt and cope with memory changes may involve:
- Repetitive exercises to train your brain. Memory and thinking exercises may help your brain repair broken circuits that may contribute to chemo brain.
- Tracking and understanding what influences memory problems. Carefully tracking your memory problems may reveal ways to cope. For instance, if you become more easily distracted when you're hungry or tired, you could schedule difficult tasks that require extra concentration for the time of day when you feel your best.
- Learning coping strategies. You may learn new ways of doing everyday tasks to help you concentrate. For instance, you may learn to take notes or make an outline of written material as you read. Or a therapist may help you learn ways of speaking that help you commit conversations to memory and then retrieve those memories later.
- Stress-relief techniques. Stressful situations can make memory problems more likely. And having memory problems can be stressful. To end the cycle, you may learn relaxation techniques. These techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may help you identify stress and help you cope.
No medications have been approved to treat chemo brain. But medications approved for other conditions may be considered if you and your doctor agree they may offer some benefit.
Medications that are sometimes used in people with these symptoms include:
- Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin, others), a drug used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Donepezil (Aricept), a drug used in people with Alzheimer's disease
- Modafinil (Provigil), a drug used in people with certain sleep disorders
- Memantine (Namenda), a drug used to improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease, may help during radiation therapy to the brain
More study is needed to understand how or if these drugs may be helpful for people with these types of memory problems.
No alternative treatments have been found to prevent or cure chemo brain. If you're interested in trying alternative treatments for your symptoms, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.
Alternative treatments for other types of memory problems are also touted as helpful for chemo brain, such as:
- Ginkgo. Supplements containing ginkgo leaves have shown some promise in treating age-related memory changes in older adults, but more study is needed. Ginkgo supplements are generally safe, but they can interfere with some common medications, including blood thinners. Talk to your doctor before beginning ginkgo supplements.
- Vitamin E. Vitamin E may be beneficial for brain cells, but more study is needed. Vitamin E supplements are generally safe when taken in recommended doses, but they can interfere with common medications, including blood thinners and chemotherapy drugs. It may be easier and safer to choose foods that are high in vitamin E, such as vegetable oils and eggs.