Objective The primary purpose of this study was to clarify the influence of the early response to surgery on brain structure and cognitive function in patients with breast cancer. It was hypothesized that the structure of the thalamus would change during the early response after surgery due to the effects of anesthesia and would represent one aspect of an intermediate phenotype of postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). Methods We examined 32 postmenopausal females with breast cancer and 20 age-matched controls. We assessed their cognitive function (attention, memory, and executive function), and performed brain structural MRI 1.5 ± 0.5 days before and 5.6 ± 1.2 days after surgery. Results We found a significant interaction between regional grey matter volume (rGMV) in the thalamus (P < 0.05, familywise error (FWE), small volume correction (SVC)) and one attention domain subtest (P = 0.001, Bonferroni correction) after surgery in the patient group compared with the control group. Furthermore, the changes in attention were significantly associated with sevoflurane anesthetic dose (r2 = 0.247, β = -0.471, P = 0.032) and marginally associated with rGMV changes in the thalamus (P = 0.07, FWE, SVC) in the Pt group. Conclusion Our findings suggest that alterations in brain structure, particularly in the thalamus, may occur shortly after surgery and may be associated with attentional dysfunction. This early postoperative response to anesthesia may represent an intermediate phenotype of POCD. It was assumed that patients experiencing other risk factors of POCD, such as the severity of surgery, the occurrence of complications, and pre-existing cognitive impairments, would develop clinical POCD with broad and multiple types of cognitive dysfunction.
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