Preventing Cognitive Decline in Cancer Survivors with Prozac

Chemotherapy is a standard treatment for slowing the growth of many types of cancer. Unfortunately, the drugs used in this treatment are often highly toxic and result in unpleasant side effects such as nausea, vomiting, weight loss, hair loss, fatigue, and pain. Not everyone experiences the same severity of side effects, and many side effects can be effectively treated. Some chemotherapy drugs also cause long-term effects that may not show up for many years. Cognitive decline—the impairment of certain memory and problem-solving functions—is one of the most troublesome chronic effects of chemotherapy. For those who experience noticeable cognitive decline, depression and poor quality of life are common peripheral effects. Research into the treatment and prevention of this particular side effect is ongoing.

An upcoming study at the UCLA Medical Center will test whether Prozac (fluoxetine) might prevent the occurrence of cognitive decline within a population of cancer survivors who were treated with chemotherapy. Animal studies offer evidence that Prozac does indeed provide a long-term buffer against cognitive decline, with only a small risk of intolerance or adverse effects. People with diagnoses of breast cancer or lymphoma are eligible for the study. Participants must have recently completed chemotherapy or have the treatment scheduled for the immediate future. They must also be available for follow-up within one year of their study entry date. Researchers hope to enroll approximately 376 individuals and publish initial results late in 2017.

The study will consist of a control group that receives inactive “sugar” pills and an experimental group that receives Prozac. Phase one of the study will last six months. At the end of six months, each participant will undergo a cognitive assessment that includes a PET scan of specific brain regions, along with detailed blood testing. Participants will discontinue their study medications for phase two of the study, which lasts another six months. Researchers want to learn if the protective effects of Prozac, if any, have “staying power.” In other words, does cognitive decline happen anyway after the medication is removed, or is there a permanent benefit?

Should this upcoming study provide encouraging results, the transition to clinical use will likely be swift. Prozac is already an FDA-approved medication with a positive safety record and relatively mild side effects. The possibility of preserving cognitive function for chemotherapy patients is a promising one and offers hope of a more satisfactory life for cancer survivors.


  1. Chemotherapy – (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 26, 2012, from
  2. Fluoxetine Prevention Trial. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2012, from

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