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Gut-brain interactions in young people with cancer

University of New South Wales

  • Cardiovascular Early-Mid Career Researcher Grant
Date Funded:
  • 1 July, 2023
Chief Investigator/s:
  • Dr. Caitlin Cowan

Project Summary

We aim to improve understanding of how chemotherapy affects the brain by studying gut microbes in young people with cancer.

What is the issue for NSW?

Cancer survivors have to deal with a range of side effects during, and for a long time after, cancer treatment. Some of the most harmful and long-lasting side effects are those affecting the brain. These include cognitive changes (for example memory loss, difficulty paying attention and learning difficulties) and psychological changes (for example low mood and anxiety). This is especially important for adolescents and young adults (AYAs) because their brains are still developing, making them potentially more vulnerable to brain-related side effects. Currently, there are very limited neuropsychology or clinical psychology services available via the NSW public health system, which makes it difficult for AYAs to access help for this issue and means that the extent of the problem is not well understood. Further, little is known about what causes brain-related side-effects. Our research will address this problem, helping us to account for why some AYAs are more vulnerable. This information will help tailor services and support to ensure that our limited clinical resources are used most effectively.

What does the research aim to do and how?

We aim to better understand how cancer treatment affects the brain of young patients. We will test brain function and psychological wellbeing in patients and healthy AYAs using questionnaires and standardised tests of attention, learning and memory. We will then analyse blood and stool samples to identify markers related to symptoms. We will also use these samples in laboratory models to better understand whether gut bacteria can cause the symptoms. Finally, we will ask young people about their experiences so that we can eventually develop useful treatments to reduce the impact of cancer therapy on the brain.