Episodic memory for visual scenes suggests compensatory brain activity in breast cancer patients: a prospective longitudinal fMRI study

  • Denise PergolizziEmail author
  • James C. Root
  • Hong Pan
  • David Silbersweig
  • Emily Stern
  • Steven D. Passik
  • Tim A. Ahles


It has been hypothesized that breast cancer and its chemotherapy can impart functional neural changes via an overlap with biological mechanisms associated with aging. Here we used fMRI to assess whether changes in neural activity accompanying visual episodic memory encoding and retrieval suggest altered activations according to patterns seen in functional imaging of cognitive aging. In a prospective longitudinal design, breast cancer patients (n = 13) were scanned during memory encoding and retrieval before and after chemotherapy treatment, and compared to healthy-age matched controls (n = 13). Our results indicate that despite equivalent behavioral performance, encoding and retrieval resulted in increased activation of prefrontal regions for the breast cancer group compared to controls for both before and after chemotherapy treatment. This was accompanied by decreased activity in posterior brain regions after chemotherapy, particularly those involved in visual processing, for the breast cancer group compared to controls. These findings are discussed as evidence for a possible anterior shift in neural processing to compensate for deficiencies in posterior brain regions, consistent with an accelerated aging account. Cancer and chemotherapy can impact brain regions underlying episodic memory, leading to additional recruitment of control regions, which may be linked to mechanisms related to aging.


Breast Cancer fMRI Episodic memory Chemotherapy 



TAA and SDP were supported by the Starr Cancer Consortium (protocol #1-A17) and Amgen, Inc. DP would like to acknowledge the NIH/NCI Cancer Center Support Grant P30 CA008748 and the NCI award number T32 CA009461 under which authorship for this work was supported. The content is solely responsible of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Denise Pergolizzi, James C. Root, Hong Pan, David Silbersweig, Emily Stern, Steven D. Passik and Tim A. Ahles declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, and the applicable revisions at the time of the investigation. Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesSloan Kettering Institute for Cancer ResearchNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesMemorial Sloan Kettering Cancer CenterNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Weill Cornell Medical CollegeNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryBrigham and Women′s HospitalBostonUSA
  5. 5.Department of RadiologyBrigham and Women′s HospitalBostonUSA
  6. 6.Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  7. 7.Brigham Research Institute Neuroscience Research CenterBrigham and Women′s HospitalBostonUSA
  8. 8.Collegium PharmaceuticalsBostonUSA
  9. 9.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesMemorial Sloan Kettering Cancer CenterNew YorkUSA

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