'Genius Pill' Relieves Chemobrain
Provigil Boosts Memory, Concentration in Women Receiving Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
WebMD News Archive
June 5, 2007 (Chicago) -- A so-called “genius pill” may enhance memory and
attention among breast cancer survivors who suffer from the condition known as
chemobrain, a small study suggests.
The researchers looked at the effects of Provigil, a drug used to treat
excessive sleepiness from certain sleep disorders, in 68 women suffering from
chemobrain, also referred to as chemo fog. Chemobrain is mild cognitive
impairment characterized by the inability to remember certain things, complete
certain tasks, or learn new skills.
“After just four weeks of treatment, we saw improvements in their ability to
recall,” says researcher Sadhna Kohli, PhD, MPH, a research assistant professor
at the University of Rochester’s James P. Wilmot Cancer Center.
“Those who continued taking the drug for eight weeks saw improvements in
attention,” she tells WebMD.
Kohli stresses that the results have to be replicated in more women and for
longer periods of time before Provigil should be prescribed for chemo brain,
The findings were presented here at the American Society of Clinical
Oncology’s annual meeting.
Memory, Attention Problems
For years, many doctors doubted the existence of “chemobrain,” although many
people with cancer complained of problems with memory, concentration, and
attention skills during and even after treatment with chemotherapy drugs.
But “it’s increasingly being acknowledged as a real phenomenon for some
patients,” says Ann H. Partridge, MD, PhD, a cancer doctor at Dana-Farber
Cancer Institute in Boston. She was not involved in the study.
In a separate study last year, Kohli and colleagues found that 82% of 595
people with cancer given chemotherapy reported problems with memory and
“Some of them say it would resolve very quickly after treatment ended; some
say it lingers for years,” Kohli says.
Since people with chemobrain find it very hard to pay attention, the
deficits can lead to job loss and social problems, she says.
Provigil Boosts Brainpower
The new analysis looked at whether Provigil, designed to promote wakefulness
among those with sleep disorders including narcolepsy, would help relieve
symptoms and improve mental function.
Provigil seems to boost brainpower without causing the jittery, restless
feelings induced by amphetamines, Kohli explains. It stimulates the brain only
when it is required, with effects dissipating in about 12 hours. As a result,
sleep-deprived college students, athletes, soldiers, or others who want to gain
an edge in a competitive environment sometimes seek out the drug, calling it a
In the study, 68 women who had completed chemotherapy treatment for breast
cancer were given the drug for four weeks. Then, for another four weeks, half
of the women continued to receive the drug while the others were given a
The women were given a series of cognitive tests before starting the drug,
at four weeks and at eight weeks. For example, they would be asked to watch a
series of pictures or words flashed on a screen and then asked to recall them
five minutes later. Results showed that after just four weeks, women could
recall faster and more accurately recognize words and pictures. By eight weeks,
attention deficits improved and memory was even better.
Since Provigil does not linger in the body, side effects are minimal,
according to Kohli.
“This is a very provocative and exciting study,” Partridge tells WebMD.
“Chemo fog can hamper some people's lives for a long time, if not forever. I
hope to see confirmatory findings soon.”
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