News Release 

Cancer researchers study cognitive dysfunction after chemo

University of Pittsburgh

Grant Announcement


IMAGE: Clinical psychologist, Biobehavioral Cancer Control Program, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. view more 

Credit: UPMC

PITTSBURGH/INDIANAPOLIS, May 4, 2021 - Cancer researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Indiana University received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study cognitive dysfunction after chemotherapy.

Following chemotherapy, survivors often find it more challenging to learn new tasks, remember words or do things as efficiently or quickly as they once did. That's why Robert Ferguson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Biobehavioral Cancer Control Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, developed a cognitive behavioral therapy called Memory and Attention Adaptation Training, or MAAT, which will be the focus of the first large-scale, multi-center study thanks to the new grant.

Ferguson is collaborating with Brenna McDonald, Psy.D., a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, to test MAAT and supportive therapy to determine the effects of both on improving memory problems and emotional resilience among breast cancer survivors.

MAAT is cognitive behavioral therapy in which survivors work with a psychologist to identify specific situations at home or on the job where memory problems are likely to occur and to learn specific strategies to address those issues. In supportive therapy, survivors also work with the psychologist, but they explore emotional strengths and build resilience in coping with memory problems and cancer survivorship in general. Both therapies consist of eight telehealth visits of 45-minutes each.

"The survivor and therapist review what currently is known--and not known--about memory problems associated with cancer and cancer treatment," said Ferguson, an assistant professor of hematology/oncology in Pitt's School of Medicine. "They also address distress and aggravation that can accompany memory difficulty in daily life to identify the specific situations and apply strategies to reduce or mitigate memory problems."

Participants will learn to recognize that everyone at some point forgets something, said McDonald, professor of radiology and imaging sciences at IU School of Medicine.

"We all sometimes forget something, such as why we walked into a room. And that's OK. We know, however, that patients are quick to attribute that to their treatment, which makes them feel helpless," she said.

Both therapies have been designed and tested as a telehealth-delivered therapy to reduce travel and time burdens on survivors and families. While it can be delivered in office, too, many survivors have exhausted their paid time off work and may have used much of their savings to help pay for cancer treatment, so the telehealth option often is preferred.

With the latest grant, the researchers will look at the functional MRI of participants to evaluate underlying changes in brain activation patterns that are believed to be associated with treatment. In previous research, Ferguson and McDonald have demonstrated enhanced working memory following treatment among individuals with traumatic brain injury.

The two researchers are building on a collaboration that started when they were both faculty at Dartmouth College nearly two decades ago. They conducted small clinical trials and pilot studies on the cognitive symptoms in breast cancer patients, which led to the development of MAAT.


Pitt and IU each hope to evaluate 100 women, half of whom will receive MAAT while the others receive the supportive therapy.

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About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is the region's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and is one of the largest integrated community cancer networks in the United States. Backed by the collective strength of UPMC--which is ranked No. 15 for cancer care nationally by U.S. News & World Report--and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center has nearly 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Maryland, with cancer centers and partnerships internationally. The more than 2,000 physicians, researchers, and staff are leaders in molecular and cellular cancer biology, cancer immunology, cancer virology, biobehavioral cancer control, and cancer epidemiology, prevention, and therapeutics. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is transforming cancer research, care, and prevention--one patient at a time.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation's leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region's economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see

About the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of only 51 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation, is home to the cure of testicular cancer and the world's only healthy breast tissue bank. The prestigious NCI comprehensive designation recognizes the center's excellence in basic, clinical, and population research, outstanding educational activities, and effective community outreach program across the state. The center's physician-scientists have made protocol-defining discoveries that have changed the way doctors treat numerous forms of cancer.

About IU School of Medicine

IU School of Medicine is the largest medical school in the U.S. and is annually ranked among the top medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The school offers high-quality medical education, access to leading medical research and rich campus life in nine Indiana cities, including rural and urban locations consistently recognized for livability.

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