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Snails Help Scientists Understand 'Chemo Brain'

Oct 04, 2014 11:37 AM EDT
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Sea snails are helping scientists better understand a phenomenon called "chemo brain" in cancer patients, a condition that has puzzled many for years, according to new research.

Chemo brain is a decrease in mental sharpness and memory that's caused by cancer dugs. It is estimated that as many as half of patients taking these drugs experience chemo brain - a condition that to this day has eluded scientists. According to the American Cancer Society, some of the distressing mental changes cancer patients experience may last a short time or go on for years.

To solve the mystery, neuroscientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) looked to certain snails for the answer.

The Aplysia californica sea snail shares many of the same memory mechanisms as humans, and by studying these creatures, it has allowed scientists to further understand the biochemical signaling among nerve cells in the brain.

"Our research has implications in the care of people given to cognitive deficits following drug treatment for cancer," senior author John H. Byrne, Ph.D., said in a statement. "There is no satisfactory treatment at this time."

Described in The Journal of Neuroscience, Byrne and his colleagues compared cell cultures taken from normal snails to those administered a dose of a cancer drug called doxorubicin, used to treat a variety of cancer types. They pinpointed a memory mechanism blocked by the drug that was no longer passing along information properly.

However, using an experimental drug the scientists were able to counteract this effect and reopen the pathway. Unfortunately, this drug is not appropriate for humans.

"We want to identify other drugs that can rescue these memory mechanisms," Byrne added.

Byrne says that understanding how these drugs impact the brain is an important first step in alleviating this condition characterized by forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and difficulty multitasking.

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