This longitudinal study aimed to disentangle the impact of chemotherapy on fatigue and hypothetically associated functional brain network alterations.
In total, 34 breast cancer patients treated with chemotherapy (BCC +), 32 patients not treated with chemotherapy (BCC -), and 35 non-cancer controls (NC) were included. Fatigue was assessed using the EORTC QLQ-C30 fatigue subscale at two time points: baseline (T1) and six months after completion of chemotherapy or matched intervals (T2). Participants also underwent resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rsfMRI). An atlas spanning 90 cortical and subcortical brain regions was used to extract time series, after which Pearson correlation coefficients were calculated to construct a brain network per participant per timepoint. Network measures of local segregation and global integration were compared between groups and timepoints and correlated with fatigue.
Although greater fatigue and lower local functional network segregation co-occur in breast cancer patients after chemotherapy, the relationship between the two generalized across participant subgroups, suggesting that local efficiency is a general neural correlate of fatigue.
As expected, fatigue increased over time in the BCC + group (p = 0.025) leading to higher fatigue compared to NC at T2 (p = 0.023). Meanwhile, fatigue decreased from T1 to T2 in the BCC - group (p = 0.013). The BCC + group had significantly lower local efficiency than NC at T2 (p = 0.033), while a negative correlation was seen between fatigue and local efficiency across timepoints and all participants (T1 rho = - 0.274, p = 0.006; T2 rho = - 0.207, p = 0.039).