I am a 57-year-old white American male infected with Hepatitis C. I am involved in a controlled medical research study by Roche Pharmaceuticals of an experimental Polymerase Inhibitor (RO5024048 also known as RG7128) drug therapy for the virus. This document is the story of my illness and the experience of treatment. My lovely and pretty damn wonderful wife will be contributing her take on the experience as well.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Memory Deficit Side Effects May Be Permanent

There was a guy I knew years ago who had the talent of entering a conversation about almost any subject with the line, “let me tell you a story about that.” Strangely enough, the story was relevant to the subject an uncanny amount of the time. I don’t have that same talent, but that won’t stop me from starting off with a story.

The day that I got the news that my viral load was undetectable or “negative” in the parlance of the hepatology folks, I wrote an entry about the motivation that gave me to pay special attention to my drug dosing regimen so as to give myself the best chance to succeed at having a sustained viral response at the end of treatment. Motivated though I was, I forgot both my evening Ribavirin dose and my evening injection of interferon on that very day. This was not disastrous as I had already taken 600 mg of ribavirin in the morning and I was able to give myself the interferon the following day. Nonetheless, it shows the power that interferon brain fog has to confuse even in the face of sincere dedication.

The following week I had my regular appointment with my hepatologist Dr. Bzowej. We discussed my test results, my general state of health and how I was reacting to the medications I was taking. I went over the various physical reactions I was having to the drugs and how those reactions had changed over time. She then quizzed me about my mental state. I told her that my memory had deteriorated quite a bit over the course of treatment and that my ability to concentrate and solve problems had also taken a hit. These are expected side effects of the interferon and ribavirin drug combination, but Dr. Bzowej had some new information about them that is quite disturbing.

The memory and cognitive deficits that Hep C treatment inflicts on those who are undertaking it have been believed to be temporary. When the patient stops taking the drugs, those side effects gradually disappeared and the patient returned to the same mental acuity they had before treatment began. This is apparently not always the case. Dr. Bzowej related that in the past year, she has had two patients whose symptoms have not improved. Their memory and concentration problems have remained over a year after no longer taking interferon and ribavirin. She is concerned enough that she referred me to a neuro-psychology specialist for a set of tests to determine my current memory and cognitive abilities. She will then have me tested in anther 3 months to check whether there has been further deterioration and if so, what course of action we should take.

This scares the crap out of me. The one thing I have always been able to rely on is my brain. I have neither dazzling good looks nor great athletic ability or physical strength. I have some amount of personal charm, but certainly not enough to depend on for a living. Nor do I have vast amounts of physical or moral courage. What I do have is a good brain. I have intelligence, creativity, the ability to learn new skills relatively quickly and the ability to solve problems. This has always been the rock I could depend on, and if it crumbles, I don’t know where it leaves me. A pile of sand on the beach maybe; certainly it changes who I am and what I can do.

The same applies to anyone else considering entering treatment. Talk to your hepatologist about this issue. Ask if it is possible to be tested for memory and cognitive function before treatment begins to establish a baseline for future reference. While in treatment keep your doctor informed of the symptoms of memory and concentration loss. You have to decide if being cleared of the Hep C virus is worth the small possibility of permanent brain function damage.

I’m still glad I entered the study and am now in standard treatment, but I don’t want the price to be permanent memory disability no matter how small the chances of that happening.

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