January 23, 2019
Daniel King

Cancer-induced cognitive impairment, commonly known as chemo brain, is a mysterious condition that has long eluded effective treatment.

But recently an online brain-training service called BrainHQ was recognized for getting results for cancer survivors.

Chemo brain can make it difficult for mesothelioma survivors to remember things or concentrate on what they are doing. While its nickname connects it to chemotherapy, doctors are unsure about its exact causes.

Symptoms of chemo brain can arise before, during or after mesothelioma treatment. They may be temporary, lasting weeks or months, or they may be permanent.

Cognitive impairments can be caused by treatment side effects, cancer symptoms and emotional stress.

BrainHQ was designed to help anyone looking for a way to sharpen their mind. Research studies have proven its benefits for older adults and cancer survivors experiencing chemo brain.

When combined with other lifestyle improvements, brain-training exercises can increase quality of life for mesothelioma survivors.

BrainHQ Added to NCI Database of Research-Tested Programs

BrainHQ is an online brain-training program made by Posit Science. In late 2018, the National Cancer Institute recognized BrainHQ as an evidence-based cancer intervention.

The NCI database describes it as an intervention designed to help breast cancer survivors troubled by chemo brain. But BrainHQ can benefit mesothelioma patients as well because it targets cognitive deficits in general, rather than the effects of any particular cancer.

Dozens of research studies have shown the benefits of BrainHQ for people, whether young or old, sick or healthy.

BrainHQ exercises can lead to improvements in:

  • Thinking speed
  • Attention span
  • Memory
  • Coordination
  • Mood and confidence

In 2017, a study of 2,800 older adults published its 10-year results. Known as the ACTIVE Study, it tested three types of brain-training programs and compared the outcomes to a control group.

The group that used the prototype of BrainHQ experienced more than 29 percent fewer dementia cases and almost half the number of at-fault car crashes.

Thanks to its positive research results, Posit Science has formed major industry partnerships. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense made BrainHQ available to all servicemen and servicewomen. The program has also gained endorsements from celebrities such as football star Tom Brady.

Leveraging Neuroscience and Algorithmic Design

BrainHQ was designed by a team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Michael Merzenich. Before his work at Posit Science, Merzenich already earned acclaim as a co-inventor of the cochlear implant, a device that restores hearing to deaf people.

Cochlear implants and BrainHQ exercises are based on the science of neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to rewire itself.

BrainHQ exercises force the brain to think faster, similar to how weightlifting forces the body to build muscle. This approach targets the underlying problems caused by chemo brain.

Of course, video game designers have been advertising products under the broad umbrella of “brain games” for many years. In past decades, brain games tended to overpromise and underdeliver in terms of their measurable cognitive benefits.

One of the design elements that sets BrainHQ apart, however, is its algorithm for automatically adjusting the difficulty of an exercise in real time.

The program monitors each user’s performance and makes the exercises more or less challenging to keep the user close to an 85 percent success rate. This ensures the exercises never get too hard or too easy.

Today’s brain games are built on a strong foundation of neuroscience.

Pleural mesothelioma survivor Emily Ward attests to the value of brain-training activities.

“As you start to age, you don’t know whether your memory is going because of aging, because of chemo, because of anesthesia from surgery,” she said. “There’s so many things that can kill brain cells and change brain cells. The fact that you can take puzzles, take mental challenges, and still do them — I think it helps. So yes, I do brain games all the time. I’m a firm believer in brain games.”

Other Ways to Manage Chemo Brain

Brain training is just one strategy for managing chemo brain during and after mesothelioma treatment. Lifestyle choices play a major role in how well cancer survivors cope with and recover from chemo brain.

Get enough sleep, eat well and exercise daily. The overall health of your body determines how well your brain can function on any given day.
Minimize distractions. If you have trouble concentrating, avoid multitasking and don’t have media playing as background noise.
Use a journal or calendar to keep track of things. All people, whether they have chemo brain or not, can benefit from getting more organized.
Maintain your sense of humor, and ask for help when you need it. Some cognitive impairments are unavoidable, especially for older cancer survivors. Rely on your support network when you need to, and learn to laugh it off.