SUNDAY, June 3, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- A so-called "genius pill" may help breast cancer survivors suffering from the syndrome known as "chemo brain," new research suggests.
The small study involved the drug modafinil (Provigil), which was originally approved to treat excessive sleeplessness associated with narcolepsy.
"This drug actually improved complaints of memory and attention deficit with chemo brain," said study author Sadhna Kohli, a research assistant professor at the University of Rochester's James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. "The results are preliminary and need to be replicated in a larger patient population."
Kohli was to present her research on Sunday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, in Chicago.
"This is a small study. It's really the first of its kind, but I think what's important about it is that they did show improvement in some parameters," added Dr. Christine Pellegrino, director of the Breast Clinic at the Montefiore-Einstein Cancer Center in New York City. "This really is opening a door to a potential promise for a lot of patients, not just breast cancer patients, who feel the haziness of chemo brain."
Modafinil belongs to a class of drugs called eugeroics, which stimulate the brain only as required. The effects last about 12 hours.
Many people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer complain of memory and attention problems as well as sluggishness, apparently related to the chemotherapy.
"We usually associate nausea, vomiting and hair loss as more common side effects [of chemotherapy], but this side effect is a great topic of conversation," Kohli said. "They can't describe it exactly, but they can't function as they did before."
In a separate study, Kohli found that 82 percent of almost 600 cancer patients reported memory and concentration problems, which can lead to job loss or social problems.
There are no real options to treat chemo brain. Some patients have tried the stimulant Ritalin, but it can be addictive and has other side effects.
"At this point, there's really nothing directed at chemo brain," Pellegrino said. "There's been some look at Ritalin, which is an amphetamine, to try to perk people up, but there hasn't really been anything successful. The nice thing about modafinil is that, unlike Ritalin, it's non-addictive."
The new study, funded by Cephalon Inc., the maker of modafinil, and the National Cancer Institute, involved 68 women who had completed treatment for breast cancer. The women ranged in age from 33 to 83, with a median age of 54 years.
All participants took 200 milligrams of modafinil for the first four weeks of the trial. During the second four weeks, women who had had a positive response to the drug were randomly selected to continue taking modafinil or a placebo.
The women who took modafinil for the entire eight weeks reported significant improvements in certain measures of memory, concentration and learning.
"These are parameters that people are not used to hearing about [but] they are good parameters," Pellegrino said. "I think that as people become a little bit more familiar with these parameters, they'll see that at least in this small study, there was a significant improvement between the group that took the drug for eight weeks and the group that did not."
Learn more about chemo brain at the American Cancer Society.