Memory loss and cognitive decline are among the troubling side effects of many chemotherapy drugs. Research has shown that the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs damages both cancerous and healthy cells, leading to organ and tissue injury throughout the body. Damage to the hippocampus, a highly specialized region of the brain, is responsible for impairments to working, verbal, and visual memory. Numerous chemotherapy drugs harm or kill cell structures within the hippocampus, and little research has been done on how to prevent this particular side effect.
Prozac (fluoxetine) is one of the most popular antidepressant medications on the market. Today, it is approved for uses well beyond just depression. Doctors prescribe Prozac for a wide range of conditions, including bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury. Prozac is known to have a protective effect on brain cells and memory function. For psychiatric conditions that lead to cognitive impairment, Prozac is known to reduce or even reverse some of the damage. For this reason, researchers have recently begun investigating whether this medication might be useful as a secondary treatment for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.
An initial, placebo-controlled study with rats added credence to the hypothesis that Prozac might protect the hippocampus against damage caused by certain cancer-fighting drugs. Specifically, the chemotherapy drug methotrexate was administered to rats at regular intervals. This particular chemotherapy drug is administered during the treatment of a broad range of cancers. One group of rats received methotrexate combined with Prozac, while the other group received only the chemotherapy drug. Study authors gave Prozac to the rats orally for 40 days before, during, and after the experimental period, allowing the drug time to accumulate in the hippocampus and other brain regions.
Results from the experiment were significant and hold out promise for future cancer patients to experience a better quality of life. Rats performed better on a battery of memory tests following chemotherapy when “pretreated” with Prozac. Untreated rats, or control rats, all showed declines in cognitive functioning. Also of note is the fact that Prozac did not interact with the chemotherapy drug or lead to any out of the ordinary side effects. Assuming these results will translate to human subjects, cognitive deficits following chemotherapy could become a thing of the past.
- Fluoxetine – PubMed Health. (n.d.). National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000885/
- Lyons, L., El Beltagy, M., Umka, J., Markwick, R., Startin, C., Bennett, G., & Wigmore, P. (2010). Fluoxetine reverses the memory impairment and reduction in proliferation and survival of hippocampal cells caused by methotrexate chemotherapy. Psychopharmacology, 215, 105-115.
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