Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
When dealing with Parkinson’s, sometimes one symptom can dictate behavior and end up causing a cascade of physical problems.
Symptom and consequence in point: hand tremors can lead to decreased liquid consumption (because the Parkinson’s patient is embarrassed to spill every time he drinks), and decreased liquid consumption can exacerbate constipation and possibly lead to impacted bowels in a Parkinson’s victim.
In dealing with Dad, we found that one solution to this cascading problem is a spill-proof sipping container. Dad used to spill everything on himself, the table, the floor. Now when his shaking is bad, we put all liquids in the spill-proof water bottle, and he is no longer embarrassed to drink.
The nice thing about the Camelbak water bottle is it’s sleek, sporty design which makes Dad feel like he fits in more with our physically active family.
So if you are having a hard time coming up with a Father’s Day gift for your Parkinson’s dad, this is my suggestion.
Deep In The Brain is a cerebral self-examination written by a philosophy professor who was riding the top of a success wave when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Talk about the relationship between mind and brain! Here is one who, thanks to his training, steps outside himself to make an objective assessment of his behavior even as he battles the attachment he has to that self.
In this book, Helmut Dubiel analyses his response to the personal and social implications of his Parkinson’s disease. He does not blame or excuse. Rather, he tries to put his and other’s reactions in context of the overarching laws of social interaction.
There is pain in this book. There are lies and pity and anger and judgment. But mostly, there is acceptance of the facts of disease and an acknowledgement of man’s irrepressible will to live and to thrive.
Yesterday as I read this book to Dad, I noticed him fidgeting more than usual. I stopped and asked him what was the matter. He said, “It seems like you’re reading about me.” I explained that this was a philosophy professor writing about himself. Dad calmed back down and listened with interest. Dad doesn’t talk about his inner battles much, so this would logically be painful for him. But good. I think this was one of Professor Dubiel’s hopes–that through his honest self-examination, others would feel released from the need to hide from their disease and, in so doing, find relief.
I’ve often asked people, “Which would you prefer: to lose your body or to lose your mind?” Given that I live with one parent with Alzheimer’s and the other with Parkinson’s, this question has personal weight. In his book, Professor Dubiel clearly expresses his preference for holding onto the self despite the ostracism brought on by the physical distortions of Parkinson’s. Knowing you are being unfairly rejected is still preferable to knowing nothing at all. On the other side, in Still Alice the protagonist affirms this appreciation for the self when–in a lucid moment–she acknowledges “I didn’t meant to get this way. I miss myself.” The mind is a far greater gift than the body.
Of course, in the end, Parkinson’s takes the mind as well.
My take-away? Pray for a cure for both diseases; forgive my and others’ shortcomings; enjoy today.
I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about Parkinson’s here. If I write about Parkinson’s, it’ll be about how it’s affecting Dad. And if I tell you the things this disease makes Dad do, you won’t have a pretty picture of Dad. And that ain’t fair.
Here’s just a little, white example. A couple days ago Dad had to go to the bathroom. He asked what direction the bathroom was, and I pointed it out. He walked to the bathroom door, then asked me again where the bathroom was. I told him he was standing at the bathroom door. He said, “And now what?” I explained that he had to walk over to the toilet. He was standing four feet from the toilet and asked, “Where?” I put pressure on his back and gently led him to the toilet. He said, “And now?”
I had to help him through the whole process.
The concept “how to back up” seems to be the biggest obstacle his brain has to overcome. He can’t figure out how to back up to the toilet before sitting, or once he’s in a chair, how to back up from the edge. The same when he goes to bed.
My sister and I try “scoot back, Dad.” He scoots forward even though he’s already on the edge of whatever. We try changing the cue. “Put your back here” (while patting the back of the chair). Nothing. “Lift your bottom and move it back.” Nothing. Yesterday I tried switching languages. I said, “Put your butt in reverse” in Portuguese. He couldn’t do it, but he did double over laughing. And that’s a huge gift.
But these gifts are hard to come by. So I probably won’t write much about Dad and his Parkinson’s. I’d rather you see the adventurous man who loaded up his wife and eight kids in a van and drove from New York to Bolivia in 1966. This man taught us all kinds of good things about nature and God, and I’d rather not leave you with a highly unbalanced picture of who he is.
It's just one doctor after another these days…
We barely got to the clinic and we were both already exhausted: Dad from getting dressed, fed, squeezed into a jacket, compressed into the car, ejected from the car, and hung in a wheelchair. Me from doing all that to him without the cooperation of his muscles. We didn’t even want to go into the clinic. I told Dad that what we should do is write a children's book about aging and how fun it is. Dad laughed. I said we could describe how you get to ride around in a cool scooter—even inside the house. And how you get to have cool leopard print all over your skin without paying a cent for it. And how if you get skin cancer on your ear, you have to have a chunk cut off (like Dad) and then you can fit right in with the folks at Rivendell or Lothlorien.
I really see some potential there.
Might as well take this big old lemon and make lemonade.
(P.S. If you have any more ideas for the book, let me know)
It’s a very painful fact that I miss Dad and that I wish I had spent more “being time” with him instead of dividing my time between being and being productive. As I’ve mentioned before, in hindsight, all you want is to be near the one you’ve lost just a few more minutes. Nothing else matters but being in the person’s presence and having them know you are there.
I want to do this with Mom, but Alzheimer’s presents a huge problem. Whenever I see Mom sitting alone, it kills me because she looks so terribly alone. So I go sit with her, and on a good day—most days—she is riveted with my presence. But the second I leave her sight—to fling clothes from the washer to the dryer; to use the bathroom; to make a cup of tea—she is completely alone again. And in those moments—from her perspective—she has always been and always will be alone. There is no memory of my having been in her presence all morning other than a few moments of necessary “productive time.”
I hate this disease. There is no sufficient quality time you can give someone with Alzheimer’s. As a caregiver, it feels like there is no neutral status for you as a human being: you are either benevolent or malevolent; sacrificial or selfish; worthy or worthless.
Alzheimer’s isn’t a one-man disease; it does a pretty good job of spreading the pain around.
Eleanor Cooney’s Death in Slow Motion: a Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer’s is not just one book. This is two tales in one: a memoir of desperate caregiving and a biography. The memoir part follows Eleanor’s hyperventilated, drug and alcohol-sustained trek through the five stages of Alzheimer’s caregiving for her mother, Mary Durant, and the biography chapters relate the story of her mother prior to Alzheimer’s (think Dorothy Parker with abundant sex and alcohol) ending with a very rare love story between Mary Durant and Michael Harwood (her third husband). Having the story weave through these two windows makes the reader feel the compounded tragedy of the beast called Alzheimer’s.
You will laugh, clench, oggle, envy, and cry as you read this literary gem.
As a bonus, Cooney includes a previously unpublished short story written by her mother (in a style I would call Flannery O’Connor cum wicked smirk).
Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
P.S. People who read this book will probably also buy and read Mary Durant and Michael Harwood’s On the Road with John James Audubon. Mine is already in the mail.
Today the world has been given the very bad news that there is nothing that can help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. The disease is a thief and a murderer, and nothing can stand in its way.
I say the folks who did these studies need to study Mom. Round out the evidence of all that hopeless progression with a little taste of surprising regression.
I wrote the rest of this post a week ago, but only got around to publishing it today:
Mom is going backwards. She’s regressing, it seems to us, and that’s a good thing when you have Alzheimer’s.
How? What? When? Where? Why? Is it wishful thinking that we’re seeing marked improvement in Mom’s cognition, or is this real?
Exactly what I’m asking myself these days. Granted, being a highly motivated observer may make my observations suspect, but I feel it would be irresponsible not to report what appears to be clear evidence of improvement in Mom’s condition. It would be irresponsible of you not to suspect my findings, but dumb not to take a look at all.
So here goes.
A few weeks ago, we who have been taking care of (or been around) Mom for the past three years noticed that we were telling people Mom was having a good month. We were used to telling people that Mom was “having a good day” every now and then. A good day once a week was a good thing. But the entire month of March of this year seemed to be “a good day.” It came to the point that we were scratching our heads saying, “Hmm. Maybe Mom doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe this was all stress, and now that she’s been de-stressed for three years, she’s coming back.”
So I decided to take inventory of the new signs of cognition (and physical improvement) coming from Mom these days. What exactly is she doing that she wasn’t doing before? This is what I have:
- Mom has gained weight. Exactly a year ago Mom weighed 85 pounds and was bed-ridden with pneumonia. Hospice pronounced her a week from the grave. Today Mom weighs 95.5 pounds. No sign of physical sickness (OK, an occasional night fever and drippy nose).
- Mom sucks from a straw. For the longest time, we were having to “prime the pump” to get Mom to suck from a straw. A year ago, when we put a straw in her mouth, nothing would happen. So we’d plug the straw with our finger, then release the contents into her mouth, and, voila, she’d start sucking. Now Mom sucks as soon as the straw hits her lips.
- Mom opens her mouth at the sight of food. Again, for the longest time we’d just get a pleasant stare when we lifted a fork to her mouth. Two years ago, it would take us a good hour and a half to get through breakfast because it was only one time out of ten that Mom’s lips would part when we brought food to her mouth. Now, six-seven times out of ten, her mouth opens like a baby bird’s. Breakfast time has been cut in half.
- Mom swallows. Up until (this is where I wish I’d kept an exact diary) about four months ago, Mom had a permanent sore on the right side of her mouth. This was caused by the fact that Mom leans to the right when she sleeps, and food that remained in her mouth (because she wasn’t aware enough to swallow) dribbled out and ate at her skin. No matter how well we brushed her teeth and how much Vaseline we slathered around her lips, the sore was there off and on for the last three years until–a few months ago. The sore has not returned.
- Mom watches TV now. Meaning, she actually turns to it, focuses on it, and laughs on cue–sometimes for a 10-15 minute stretch. This hasn’t happened at all in the past three years until this “awakening.”
- Mom stops at the photo gallery in the hallway, looks at individual family photos and “comments.” For the past three years we’ve been walking through the hallway with Mom–past a 4 foot x 4 foot photo gallery–occasionally stopping to show Mom the family photos in hopes of getting a response. She wouldn’t even look where we were pointing. And if she focused at all, it would just as likely be on a knot in the wood frame as on a photo. Now Mom takes the initiative to stop and look from frame to frame, pointing, jabbering, looking at us and back at the photos. Sometimes getting teary-eyed at our description of the photos.
- Mom is using sentences. I wrote in a previous post that Mom’s language consists almost entirely of two syllable experiments in sound with an occasional word thrown in. We used to get so excited when she uttered a word that we’d call a family member and share the big news. In the past couple weeks, Mom has used short sentences. Like three days ago when I put her to bed, I said, “Mom, I love you.” She nodded and said, “For me, for me, for me too too.” The next morning at breakfast I tried to give her some juice while she was still chewing on her eggs and she shoved my hand aside and said “Put it down down.” I put her down for a nap in the afternoon, put on some Vivaldi, and did a farcical ballet dance (a la BodyVox). She nodded and said, “Yes. I do too too too.” Then that evening when I tried to give her her Seroquel (ground up in some juice), she shook her head. I kept bringing the juice to her mouth, and in exasperation she said, “Tsk! What what what do you do?” (Translation, “cut it out!”).
Four sentences in two days! Yesterday was a quiet day for Mom. No miraculous signs of anything. I’m dying to report more on this healing process, but Mom is not a science project, and I have to remember that she is worth all my love no matter what direction her mind and body take.
But I do think it’s worth mentioning that something has happened to Mom that has sent this Alzheimer’s into some sort of retreat. There is more than death taking place in her brain. Somewhere, somehow, regeneration is taking place as well.
Have any of you had the experience of watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s have a good month? I know Bob DeMarco recently reported an extraordinary event with his mother Dotty. Huge “regressive” step.
Next question will be, what could be causing these amazing regressions? We may have to rely on each other–the caregivers–to find the answer rather than on lab tests alone.
So I re-listened to the Fresh Air segment today, then did some quick digging through articles I’ve seen online on the brain, stirred it all around, let it simmer some more, and here is the reduction I got.
Maybe our addiction to the pursuit of happiness is contributing to brain aging. It’s not an umbrella cause, of course. You would never have been able to say that Mom led a hedonistic lifestyle. And Ronald Reagan pursued a lot more things than happiness. But still… The connection between what Dr. Linden was saying and what I’ve read makes me suspicious.
In David Linden’s Compass of Pleasure, he talks about the pleasure area of the brain as being that part that–in response to certain activities or substances–produces dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain. It is activated when we engage in certain activities or thought processes, but it is also activated when we injest/inject food, alcohol, narcotics.
Some things that produce dopamine are completely healthy. Like a good run, the enjoyment of friends, reading a stimulating book.
Some things are borderline good. Like food. Everybody needs it. The pleasure of good food produces dopamine. But when pleasure is sought after for pleasure’s sake, “the brain’s dopaminergic circuitry gets blunted. In all cases of producing pleasure in the brain, it takes increasing levels [of a thing] to produce the same level of pleasure” (quoting Dr. L). So with food, you eventually get overweightness if the pleasure of food is pursued beyond the body’s need for it. Obesity is contributing to an epidemic of Diabetes, which is strongly linked to brain aging. By indirect means, then, the pursuit of a happy palate can lead to brain aging.
Then there are things that produce dopamine (or cause its production) that are not healthy. Like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine. This falls in with the acetaldehyde hypothesis I wrote about in Does Alzheimer’s Take Guts. Alcohol, cocaine, and especially cigarette smoke have–at some point in their metabolic breakdown–the toxic aldehyde acetaldehyde. Very destructive to the brain. Dopamine is produced as the end-process of breaking down harmful aldehydes into harmless acids. It’s the brain’s “Yahoo!” after saving the day from the bad guys. That “Yahoo!” may be a good thing, but again, in order to get it a second, third, and nth time, you have to increase the attack on the body. [Interestingly, Disulfiram‘s use to treat alcohol and cocaine addiction works by inhibiting ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase) which is the enzyme that metabolizes acetaldehyde. It lets the toxin do its full work rather than disabling it by metabolizing it into a harmless acid. So the brain does not get its “yahoo!” And if you get no yahoo, you don’t repeat the action.]
The problem with focusing on happiness above all else is that we may end up using the short-cut and more harmful methods of getting that dopamine high.
Dr. Linden’s solution? “Try to take your pleasures broadly: exercise, meditate, learn, have moderate consumption of alcohol, moderate consumption of food.”
I would add: pursue friendships, do charitable work, tend a garden, read a good book (get more ideas at Changing Aging).
As Captain Kirk once said, “There are a million things you can have and a million things you can’t have. Choose the million you can.”
On the way back from the errand, I was no longer me but a dim-witten twenty-something boy, and the SUV was now a semi truck. I climbed into the truck and found that it was in such a tight spot that it would be nearly impossible to get the monster out and down the alley onto the street. Nevertheless, I managed.
From there on, driving home was a brink-of-disaster experience. Sometimes the truck would jacknife and tilt over and I would dangle from the window and the truck would almost fall on top of me. But it would always right itself just in time to not kill me.
I kind of lost my way home, and at one point drove the truck into a military building. Somehow the folks there mistook me for a war hero and ordered a police escort to get me home. I was too dim-witted to correct them.
I drove home never quite feeling in control, yet chortling the whole way—the cops behind me scratching their heads as they swerved to follow. I arrived home and STILL no one would act on the fact that I was not OK.
When I awoke this morning I had to laugh at my mind’s lack of subtlety. That definitely sums up life right now. This caregiving business feels like you are always on the cusp of something that could kill but ends up leaving you alive. Barely.
I especially got a kick out of the war hero thing—a commentary on everyone always saying “You two sure are wonderful. You are going to get huge rewards in Heaven!”Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
Trying to follow Alzheimer’s research sometimes feels like walking through an Escher exhibit: the contradictions can border on the absurd.
Take the new findings on SIRT1 and its relation to Alzheimer’s. Research after research shows that SIRT1 apparently protects against Alzheimer’s:
25 July 2010. The sirtuin protein SIRT1 is emerging as an important player in learning and memory, and may have potential as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer disease. Fresh on the heels of a July 11 Nature paper that demonstrated a crucial role for SIRT1 in memory (see ARF related news story on Gao et al., 2010), two new papers add to the growing body of evidence that SIRT1 helps keep brains healthy. In a paper appearing July 21 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers led by Valter Longo at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, show that a SIRT1 knockout mouse has numerous defects in learning and memory. This finding implies that SIRT1 could have a protective role in AD, and indeed, in a July 23 Cell paper, researchers led by Leonard Guarente at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, report that overexpression of SIRT1 can decrease Aβ production and the number of amyloid plaques in a mouse model of AD.
You’d think, then, that more SIRT1 is better for Alzheimer’s and less is worse. But:
Michán and colleagues also examined a transgenic mouse that overexpressed SIRT1 16-fold in the brain. On this normal mouse background, the authors found that this massive SIRT1 overexpression conferred no improvements in learning or memory, and that synaptic function was unchanged except for a slight increase in neuronal excitability.
And though less is worse, vitamin B3 in the form of niacinamide has been shown to “cure” Alzheimer’s in mice by decreasing the expression of SIRT1: Nicotinamide Restores Cognition in Alzheimer’s Disease Transgenic Mice via a Mechanism Involving Sirtuin Inhibition and Selective Reduction of Thr231-PhosphotauWe evaluated the efficacy of nicotinamide, a competitive inhibitor of the sirtuins or class III NAD+-dependent HDACs in 3xTg-AD mice, and found that it restored cognitive deficits associated with pathology. Nicotinamide selectively reduces a specific phospho-species of tau (Thr231) that is associated with microtubule depolymerization, in a manner similar to inhibition of SirT1. Nicotinamide also dramatically increased acetylated -tubulin, a primary substrate of SirT2, and MAP2c, both of which are linked to increased microtubule stability. .
When asked about this contradiction, Dr. Greene, one of the researchers on this paper says,
You are correct – there are contradictions between the role of Sirt1 in AD. Regardless of these, nicotinamide has good effects in the preclinical models, and has been shown to now be effective for other neurodegenerative diseases as well. Sirt1 may be beneficial at some stages of the disease, and not others – we cannot [reconcile] these differences at this stage, but our research says that nicotinamide is highly effective in preclinical models and that inhibition of Sirt1 plays a role in these effects.
My mind wants to hyperventilate with the contradictions, but then I remember the story of the three blind men describing an elephant and realize the contradiction exists only because we do not yet fully understand.
And that’s what drives research onward.
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This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
Here is something frustrating about clinical trials of Alzheimer’s drugs: the FDA requires that such trials show an almost immediate improvement in memory tests of participants in order for the drug to get approval, disregarding improvement in other symptoms, and consequently derailing a possible cure for this dreaded disease.
Here is why I think there is an inherent problem with this guideline:
If you go the the Alzheimer’s Association website and take the interactive tour of a brain with Alzheimer’s (a fantastic tool!), you will notice that there is a general pattern to the progression of Alzheimer’s and its accompanying symptoms. Specifically, looking at slide 13 you will see that the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s is the inner core where the hippocampus resides—that part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. From there, damage spreads outwards to the cortex of the various lobes. As the second image in slide 13 shows, the Frontal Cortex is affected in mid stages of Alzheimer’s. This area is responsible for attention, social skills and intelligence (or wit). It is associated with “personality.”
Now, if an effective drug for Alzheimer’s were to be developed, you would expect to see the least damaged areas respond first, followed by the most heavily damaged areas.
Such were the preliminary results of the clinical trial of Dimebon. In reading the various anecdotal accounts of the Dimebon trial (see Bob DeMarco’s piece on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room), the results seemed to show precisely this initial response: Alzheimer’s sufferers reported increased alertness, social skills, and wit. Here is a sample quote from the various testimonials:
The major drug companies are focusing on memory. Are they after the right target? I’ll tell you this, in weeks 6 through 18 in the Dimebon clinical trial my mother was more engaged with me, more aware of her surroundings, more interesting, and more like her “old” self then she had been in six years.
The least damaged areas of the brain were affected in the 12-week trial! Then the trial was stopped because the inner (most damaged) area of the brain showed no marked improvement.
Would it not make sense to glean from the trial that a logical reverse course of the disease was set in motion and to continue it to see if the pattern held?
Pfizer et al, could you give us another 12 weeks when studying Alzheimer’s please?!
[Note: this analysis is mine alone. It may not be true that the least affected areas would show improvement first]
As an artist whose artistic mother also has Alzheimer’s, this movie hit home for me. It was like watching my own mother lose all her nouns, then her knowledge of interpreting nouns on a canvas, and finally her knowledge of self.
In this film, the mother’s sorrow and fear are mitigated by the son’s desire to hang out with her. I only hope his desire lasted beyond the making of the film. For the sake of all those with Alzheimer’s, I hope love lasts beyond the time the disease is an interesting artistic or scientific curiosity. I hope it lasts beyond the time a diseased person has anything at all to offer.
A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.
After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.
If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.
No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.
This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”
My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.
Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.
But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.
Colossal goals risk colossal failures.
Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?
“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”
Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.
Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:
“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”
I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).
But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.
I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.
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- Alzheimer's Research Forum - Targeting Breakthrough Research
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- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease - an international multidisciplinary journal with a mission to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment and psychology of Alzheimer’s
- Kris Bakowski's Blog on Early-Onset Alzheimer's - Kris is an active advocate for Alzheimer’s research
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- The Hope of Alzheimer's - Mary Kay Baum and sisters with early-onset speak out
- The Last of His Mind - Joe Thorndike, once the managing editor of Life and the founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, succumbs to Alzheimer’s
- The Myth of Alzheimer's - A doctor’s perspective on Alzheimer’s
- The Tangled Neuron - A Layperson Reports on Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s & Dementia
- The Brain’s Springboard to Creativity
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