Chemotherapy disrupts learning, neurogenesis and theta activity in the adult brain


Correspondence: Miriam S. Nokia, as above.



Chemotherapy, especially if prolonged, disrupts attention, working memory and speed of processing in humans. Most cancer drugs that cross the blood–brain barrier also decrease adult neurogenesis. Because new neurons are generated in the hippocampus, this decrease may contribute to the deficits in working memory and related thought processes. The neurophysiological mechanisms that underlie these deficits are generally unknown. A possible mediator is hippocampal oscillatory activity within the theta range (3–12 Hz). Theta activity predicts and promotes efficient learning in healthy animals and humans. Here, we hypothesised that chemotherapy disrupts learning via decreases in hippocampal adult neurogenesis and theta activity. Temozolomide was administered to adult male Sprague–Dawley rats in a cyclic manner for several weeks. Treatment was followed by training with different types of eyeblink classical conditioning, a form of associative learning. Chemotherapy reduced both neurogenesis and endogenous theta activity, as well as disrupted learning and related theta-band responses to the conditioned stimulus. The detrimental effects of temozolomide only occurred after several weeks of treatment, and only on a task that requires the association of events across a temporal gap and not during training with temporally overlapping stimuli. Chemotherapy did not disrupt the memory for previously learned associations, a memory independent of (new neurons in) the hippocampus. In conclusion, prolonged systemic chemotherapy is associated with a decrease in hippocampal adult neurogenesis and theta activity that may explain the selective deficits in processes of learning that describe the ‘chemobrain’.