Forgetful Concerns

Posted on: 04 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A common treatment for prostate cancer may affect short term memory, a new study from the United States claims.

A common treatment for prostate cancer may affect short term memory, a new study from the United States claims.

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) researchers studying how testosterone deprivation affects verbal memory found that men undergoing the prostate cancer therapy forget things faster than their healthy counterparts.

Scientists in the OHSU in a study recently presented to the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, found that word retention drops sharply after only two minutes among men undergoing testosterone deprivation therapy. However, initial learning of the words, or encoding, was the same for testosterone-deprived and healthy men, according to another the study undertaken.

"Men who have undergone testosterone deprivation are able to encode these words well, and if I ask them immediately, they can recall them as easily as non-hormone-deprived men," comments Joseph Bussiere, a graduate student in behavioral neuroscience and the study's lead author.

"But after only two minutes, there's a marked drop-off. When you stretch the time between encoding and retrieval, that's where the problem lies."

In testosterone deprivation or 'ablation', the testicles are surgically removed or medications are given to block the production of male hormones, principally testosterone, that can promote prostate cancer growth. This common treatment for prostate cancer in the U.S wipes out most male hormones found in the body.

Bussiere and Jeri Janowsky, professor of behavioral neuroscience and neurology at the OHSU believe that the rapid drop in memory suggests that a lack of testosterone affects the function of the hippocampus, a curved, elongated ridge in the brain that controls learning and memory. In fact, Janowsky said, similar deficits - the ability to encode information initially but forget it quickly - is seen in individuals with well-known cognitive disorders.

"A colleague looked at the study results and said, 'Wow, that looks exactly like what happens with a lesion in the hippocampus,'" Janowsky said. "When others have done studies like this on people who have hippocampal damage from early Alzheimer's disease or lesions due to strokes, this is the pattern."

The study examined 30 individuals - 14 men undergoing androgen deprivation treatment for prostate cancer and 16 healthy, age-matched men. Participants were shown lists of words and, to encode them, were asked to identify whether the words were in capital or lowercase letters, which requires shallow or 'perceptual' processing, or whether they represented objects that occurred in nature or were artificially made, which requires deep or 'semantic' processing.

Participants were then shown another list containing words they'd just seen as well as new words and were asked whether they'd seen each word before. This test was performed at three time intervals: immediately, after two minutes and after 12 minutes.

The results, Bussiere and Janowsky say, point to a negative effect of testosterone deprivation in the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing information from the first few seconds on. Both the prefrontal cortex and hippocampal memory systems commonly show declines with aging and are associated with problems in attention and memory.

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