Brain training helps cognitive decline in many cancer survivors

November, 2012

A pilot study found that both training in memory strategies and processing speed training had significant benefits for breast cancer survivors with concerns about their memory and cognition.

Cancer survivors who underwent chemotherapy often suffer long-term cognitive problems. Until now, most research has been occupied with establishing that this is in fact the case, and studies investigating how to help have been rare. I recently reported on studies suggesting that help with sleep problems and stress can be beneficial. It has also been suggested that exercise can help. None of these suggestions are special to cancer survivors (although cancer survivors may well be one of several groups that derive particular benefit). Similarly, a new study investigates another familiar approach to improving cognitive decline.

The pilot study involved 82 post-menopausal breast cancer survivors (average age 56) who had received chemotherapy and who were worried about their cognitive abilities. The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group received memory training adapted from the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) trial; another received processing speed training using Posit Science’s Insight program (commercially available); the third was a wait-listed control group.

Training consisted of ten 1-hour small-group (3-5 people) sessions over 6-8 weeks. Memory training involved learning strategies and applying them to word lists, sequences, and texts. Strategies included mnemonic techniques, as well as instruction in principles of meaningfulness, organization, visualization, and association. Strategies were taught and practiced in the first five sessions, and further practiced in the remaining sessions.

In the Insight program, stimulus duration is progressively shortened during a series of progressively more difficult information-processing tasks, such as time-order judgment, discrimination, spatial-match, forward-span, instruction-following, and narrative-memory tasks. Exercises automatically adjust to maintain an 85% correct rate.

Both programs proved beneficial. The memory training group showed significant improvement in immediate and delayed memory, which was maintained at the two-month follow-up. There was of course individual variability: 39% showed significant improvement on immediate memory (compared to 18% of controls) and 42% on delayed memory (compared to 11% of controls). While the group as a whole didn’t show significant improvement in processing speed, some 73% of the group showed reliable improvement at the two-month follow-up.

The Insight group showed significant improvement on both memory and processing speed. Some 68% improved processing speed (compared to 43% of controls). But note that at the 2-month follow-up, the 67% of the Insight group is not that much greater than the 61% of the controls (demonstrating very clearly the benefits of even the small amount of practice received in testing) and is in fact less than the 73% of the memory group.

The Insight group also showed significant improvement in memory. At two-month follow-up, some 30% of the Insight group had improved immediate memory (compared to the 18% of controls), and 33% had improved delayed memory (vs 11%).

Both training programs had a positive effect on perceived cognitive functioning and symptom distress (mood, anxiety, fatigue), and there was no difference between the groups in terms of satisfaction with the training (both groups were very satisfied).

The researchers concluded that, while both training programs were promising, the dual effect of processing speed training (on memory as well as processing speed) argued for its broader benefits.

However, I note that, although the size of the effect of memory training on processing speed was too small to reach statistical significance, the fact that the number of participants showing reliable improvement was greater than that of the Insight group points to an equally broad effect of memory training. If the memory training was supplemented by a small amount of practice on tasks designed to boost processing speed, it would seem to me that this might produce greater cognitive benefits than the processing speed training. Indeed, the Insight program was, I believe, first developed in the context of the ACTIVE program, and I have, of course, talked before about the value of training that includes multiple domains.

Still, the main message of this study should not be overlooked: it demonstrates that many cancer survivors suffering from cognitive decline can improve their cognitive performance through training and practice.

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