Groundbreaking Pilot Study Suggests Neurofeedback Can Treat ‘Chemo Brain’

Research looking at neurofeedback and “chemo brain” found that most patients had normal brain function after 18 weeks of neurofeedback therapy, significantly improving patient symptoms.

Data show neurofeedback therapy may improve symptoms of “chemo brain” in patients with cancer by returning abnormal brain waves to normal frequency, according to researchers who conducted a pilot study at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). The study is one of the first to use neurofeedback, also known as electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback, to improve cognitive function in patients post-chemotherapy.

"The history of neurofeedback shows that it's helpful for a whole range of disorders and symptoms. This study was an opportunity for seeing whether neurofeedback is something that could be helpful with chemo brain," said study lead Stephen Sideroff, a professor at UCLA's Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, in a press release.

Chemo brain is a term for some common neurological symptoms that occur after chemotherapy treatment, which can include memory, organization, and concentration problems. The symptom of chemo brain has also been found to cause troubled sleep and emotional distress in some patients.

Neurofeedback involves training the brain waves to operate at optimal frequency patterns. In past studies, it has been shown to remediate cognitive impairments such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, stroke, seizures, and even improve the brain activity of substance use patients.

For this study, Sideroff and UCLA colleagues David Wellisch and Valerie Yarem looked at 9 female patients with breast cancer between the ages of 21 and 65 years. All participants went through chemotherapy at least 1 year prior and complained of debilitating chemo brain symptoms, such as poor concentration, memory, organization, and confusion. Among patients included in the clinical trial, no patients currently had breast cancer, a present/recent major depressive disorder diagnosis, other mental illness, or took cognitive-altering medications.

During the trial, participants were administered pre-training neurocognitive and psychological tests, along with a quantitative EEG to measure brain wave frequency—the pre-training EEG showed that participants had abnormal brain wave activity compared to a healthy adult brain.

The test consisted of putting a sensor on the scalp and earlobes to monitor brain wave frequency. The participant saw their brain frequency in the form of a bar graph and were tasked with turning the bars green by manipulating their brain wave frequencies. They received 18 neurofeedback sessions, each 30-minutes long and administered during a 6-week period.

After the sessions, 7 of the 9 participants had completely normalized brain wave frequencies on their EEG. Every participant exhibited improved everyday functioning. The researchers also found improved psychological wellbeing among every participant.

Participants’ information processing, executive set shifting, and sustained visual attention significantly improved, according to the neurocognitive testing that followed the neurofeedback sessions.

Shortfalls of this study include a small sample size and no control group. Additionally, most participants took 7 to 9 weeks to complete the neurofeedback sessions, which is considered long when compared to prior studies evaluating the efficacy of neurofeedback therapy.

However, the study authors noted they do believe the strong study results support the pursuit of further research on neurofeedback and effectively addressing chemo brain, which may ultimately extend into finding the ideal protocols around length of time for these neurofeedback sessions.

"Our results are more impressive given we were not able to have subjects stick to the schedule," Sideroff said in the press release.

References

University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences. Neurofeedback shows promise for addressing 'chemo brain'. Science Daily. August 25, 2022. Accessed on August 29, 2022. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220825120413.htm

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