Doxorubicin is a leading chemotherapeutic halting cellular replication and inducing p53-dependent apoptosis in cancerous tissue. Like many chemotherapies, doxorubicin damages healthy tissue throughout the body through cellular mechanisms independent of its chemotherapeutic action. Although cognitive impairment is commonly recorded in patients after chemotherapy, the occurrence of doxorubicin-induced "chemo-brain" is debated, as doxorubicin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. However, the potential of indirect doxorubicin neurotoxicity remains, providing a foundation for doxorubicin-mediated chemo-brain. We present the first meta-analysis of defined cognitive performance of doxorubicin-treated patients. A search of PubMed and MedLine collected 494 studies, 14 of which met analysis criteria. Performance of 511 doxorubicin-treated women with breast cancer was compared to that of 306 healthy controls across measures of defined cognitive modalities. Treated patients experience significant impairment in global cognition compared to controls (g= -0.41, P < 0.001), with select impairment in executive function (g = -0.25, P < 0.0001), language (g = -0.30, P < 0.0001), memory (g = -0.12, P < 0.01) and processing speed (g = -0.28, P < 0.01). Within memory, short-term verbal memory is most significantly affected (g = -0.21, P < 0.01). Impairment in select cognitive modalities (executive function, language, memory, short-term verbal memory, processing speed) is prevalent in doxorubicin-treated patients, with some cognitive functions remaining intact (attention, motor function, visuospatial abilities). This information can guide the development of future interventions to improve quality-of-life (QOL) and doxorubicin-derived therapies that target cytotoxicity to cancerous tissue, avoiding healthy tissue damage, which is mediated by seemingly independent mechanisms.
Keywords: Cancer Chemo-brain Chemotherapy Cognition Doxorubicin Memory