Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
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]
The other night I watched the movie Limitless. I thought it was a typical heart-pounding thriller with a touch of fantasy—in this case about a guy who discovers a drug that turns him into a genius. I thought the plot was moving toward the inevitable crash he would suffer when his supply ran out (as happened to everyone else in the movie whose supply ran out).
Then came the twist at the very end that made me laugh out loud. OMG, what Pretty Woman was to prostitutes, Limitless is to drug addicts and the whole drug industry.
If you’re smart enough, it says, you can make the perfect brain drug; you can take the last dose of the perfect drug to a lab and figure out how to reverse engineer and reproduce it; and you can figure out how to tweak it downwards in a perfectly safe manner (all within very short time periods); then you can wean yourself from a phenomenally addictive drug; and finally, you can train your brain to retain all the benefits of said drug once you have weaned yourself off it.
HA HA HA HA HA.
I think the whole problem I have with the drug industry is that, except in this extreme pharmacofantasy, it is additive rather than subtractive. You add one drug to treat a condition, then you add another to deal with the side effects of the first drug, then you add an nth drug to deal with the side effects of the combination of all the previous drugs.
Why not start with subtraction?
What are we injesting that we should cut out? Sugar? Preservatives? Smoke? Alcohol? Pesticides?
How often/much are we eating that we should cut back? Are we inhibiting certain enzymes—such as the anti-aging SIRT1—that only activate during fasting hours?
Maybe less is more?
Let’s start by removing the offending substances first, because once you start adding, it’s not you who benefit. It’s the industry that initially did have your brain in mind but now needs you to need them more and more.
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.
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.
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
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.
How much time is enough time? We know we are mortals and we know life is but a breath. In light of eternity, we calculate that 100 years passes as quickly as twenty. Yet, given anything less than 100, and we say we’ve been “cut off.”
My big, strapping brother-in-law lays in the hospital right now, fighting for each new minute after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He is tired, and he is ready to rest. We would prefer the doctors find a cure and make him bounce back, but we want to let him go.
Throughout this whole battle, Ken’s mind worked around his brain to bring humor and gratitude to his situation. He firmly believes God’s purposes can be worked through the worst tragedies, and it is amazing to hear how his concerns were always for the eternal perspective he could bring to the waiting room, the surgery room, the recovery room.
Ken’s life may be cut short in our view, but it has been a life well-lived, and that’s more than a lot folks can say. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living; an anonymous person added that an unlived life is not worth examining. I can vouch for Ken that he’s had a life worth examining.
April 26, a.m.: Ken had a brain hemorrage last night and is on life support. Awaiting a family gathering to let him go.
April 26, 7 p.m. Goodbye Kenny. From someone who was present at his bedside: ” just wanted to write and let you know that Ken’s passing was beautiful in the midst of family and hymns and Scripture. The more that Daniel read and Ruth recited the easier his respirations…and soon he just passed on.”
We already miss your booming laugh, your exhuberant living, and your unwavering faith. Save us a place at the banquet table, and we’ll see you in the morning.
We are continually hearing that Medicare is going to go bankrupt by mid-century thanks to the skyrocketing costs of an aging population in need of prescription drugs and dementia care.
Medicare Part D costs to the government in 2010 were $62 billion and are projected to climb to $150 billion by 2019. And Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s care will increase more than 600 percent, from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.
Here is a double-barreled solution to the costs of Medicare Part D and Alzheimer’s care: replace prescription drugs with equally effective placebos and employ mildly-cognitively-impaired individuals as healthcare enhancement agents.
This is not a joke. Here is why this would work and save the federal government billions:
Placebos—if delivered properly—could potentially be more effective and considerably less costly than many current prescription drugs.
Here is an example of an experiment with placebos for a “purely physical ailment”:
One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of [their ailment], and displayed optimism about their condition.
Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief—widespread in the pharmaceutical industry—that the placebo response is short-lived.
It has been found that placebos can sometimes work even better than the leading prescription drug for any given disease, with certain factors contributing to their effectiveness:
Yellow pills make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine. Red pills can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo. The color green reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill. White tablets—particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose. More is better, scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Branding matters. Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos. Clever names can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.
If you’re thinking that the suggestion of using placebos is unethical, check out this study:
“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”
The participants were monitored for three weeks and, at the end of the trial, 59% of the patients given the placebo reported ample symptom improvement as compared to 35% of the control group. Furthermore, participants who took the placebo had rates of improvement about equal to the effects of the most powerful IBS drugs.
Deception is unethical. Honesty is not. If there is a joke it’s in the current medical practice of prescribing expensive drugs that are sold without the most important ingredient that made them effective in the trials—the same ingredient that makes placebos effective.
As we would all imagine, the most important factor in the effectiveness of placebos is the doctor’s bedside manner. That is, the presence of compassion in the treatment of an ailment.
Regarding a Cognitively Impaired Workforce
The double-barreled solution in employing people with mild dementia as healthcare enhancement agents is that we would save on prescription drugs, hospital recovery times, and also be assigning purpose to people with mild cognitive impairment. Folks whose initial downward slope in the aging process is a bit early are not an “unproductive force in the economy.” There is richness of intellect, creativity, and compassion that could be tapped rather than stomped on per our current dementia stigmatization.
There was a time when people with physical disabilities couldn’t get jobs. But we’ve come a long way in learning of the tremendous contribution that the disabled can give, and have accommodated the workplace for such individuals with ramps and wider doorways and elevators in order to reap this benefit. Why not do the same for MCI individuals? Why are we instead discarding this tremendous resource?
In reading blogs of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, one of the biggest stresses for both the sufferer and the government is issuance of social security disability benefits. Why not offer employment rather than cash benefits? If compassion at the bedside of a sick person dramatically speeds the healing process, think of the savings accrued by employing love & joy-givers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes?
In his book The Gift of Pain, Dr. Brand lists the factors that enhance pain and prolong the healing process: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, boredom, helplessness. He then describes how perfectly suited many institutions are in promoting these feelings with their sterile settings, uncommunicative doctors and nurses, boring surroundings (and now that nurses spend all their time at computer terminals per our new streamlining guidelines, these factors are further compounded). Healthcare institutions could cut their costs by employing people to:
Design and paint interesting scenes on hospital ceilings
Play instruments in institutional corridors (not just harps, please!)
Make dolls for nursing home patients
Read aloud to patients, or simply visit
Reupholster institutional furniture with fun fabrics
Take certified dogs into institutions for cheery visits
The savings in dollars would be compounded all around, and the savings in dignity for all healthcare users a welcome change for our society.
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.
Here’s a fascinating animation superimposed over a lecture by psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist on the two hemispheres of the brain. You may have to watch it 15 times to really get it.
Funny how that commercial for Pristiq antidepressant gets it wrong. The last thing in the world we Alzheimer's victims (on both ends) need is a big old hand winding us up even more! Yikes! A better image would be seeing that key spin in the opposite direction, letting that purple-clad lady relax completely. Now there’s a pill I'd buy!
It’s ads like that that take me back to Princess Bride and Wesley’s pronouncement: "Life is pain, highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something." A lot of people have to put up with a lot of pain. It's not just us.
So perspective helps some.
Here are some other things that help:
I just finished reading Peter Whitehouse and Daniel George’s book The Myth of Alzheimer’s.
How dare you! you want to say when you first see the title. My mother went through hell with this disease, and you’re saying it’s all imaginary? HOW DARE YOU!
Then you read the book and understand.
I’m not sure I agree with the entire revision of the story of Alzheimer’s, but I did like the tenor of the book. It’s compassionate toward those who suffer from dementia and even more so toward those who suffer from the stigma of dementia. It is angry at Big Pharma—the machine that markets fear of dementia so they can sell their mostly ineffective drugs. And it is angry at the medical establishment that succumbs to that marketing—toward doctors who accept gifts (in disguise) in exchange for prescribing Big Pharma drugs to their patients.
Dr. Whitehouse stresses that he was one of the cogs in that machine. His research helped write the story of Alzheimer’s as a disease, and his advice was sought after by pharmaceutical companies as they worked to develop drugs like Aricept and Namenda.
He was part of the machine until he realized he had helped create a monster that now feeds on the stigma of dementia such that no one is allowed to age with dignity if aging includes any level of dementia. The stigma of dementia has been blown up so large that anyone with a tinge of it is considered finished. People are no longer a mixed bag of assets and deficits. Once a person’s memory starts to go, he has no value unless the “deficit” is “fixed.”
Dr. Whitehouse points out instead that even with cognitive deficits, human beings still have plenty of assets to draw from in living fully satisfying lives.
So what is the myth?
The Alzheimer’s Research Paradigm
If you’ve every studied philosophy of science, you’ll recognize that current research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease is battling paradigms. The funny thing is, the Alzheimer’s field hasn’t even reached the level of robust theory, yet there is strife in the ranks of researchers fighting over the direction inquiry should take:
“Kill the amyloid plaque!”
“No, viva le beta amyloid!”
“Forget amyloid. It takes tau to tangle.”
“Ha! The biomarker emperor has no clothes!”
“Wait. Isn’t it all about insulin resistance?”
“Nix all the above. Just get quality sleep, and you’ll be fine.”
If you think this is funny, these basic statistics will sober you up:
* As of 2010, there are 5.4 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s
* Almost half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s
* When the baby boomers come of Alzheimer’s age, the costs of care for this disease alone will cripple Medicare and Medicaid
* Federal funding for research into a cure is dropping fast
* YOU will be paying for either your own care or for that of a loved one if a cure is not found. And YOU will either be grossly neglected when this disease hits you, or you will die the slow death of stress from caregiving for someone else.
Bottom line: research into Alzheimer’s—its cause(s), treatment, and cure—is alarmingly urgent and terribly underfunded.
There are plenty of people out there who believe we shouldn’t put money into research at all, because so far nothing has been found to stay the course of “Alzheimer’s” dementia, and the whole drug industry is just a ploy to line the pockets of the pharmaceutical fat cats. If you’re in that group, you can stop reading this now. If, however, you would really like to see your Mom or Dad or Yourself able to have a meaningful conversation with your loved ones and know whom you’re talking to—hopefully for the rest of your life—read on, because the question isn’t whether or not to research. The question is where do we put our research dollars?
Not a simple answer when you consider that the reigning paradigm for Alzheimer’s research is serious question.
Let me explain with recent findings from my own readings:
A couple weeks ago I attended a Cure Alzheimer’s Fund webinar presented by Dr. Rudy Tanzi (of Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease) on Alzheimer’s research and drug development.
Beta Amyloid: Clues From Our Genes
Dr. Tanzi’s group is in the “clues from our genes” pool (looking at the genes as a starting point rather than, say, looking at diet first). The dominant belief in this pool up until recently is that beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain, followed always by tau tangles, are the two main biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease. That is, where there is Alzheimer’s, there is an overabundance of beta amyloid plaque and destruction caused by tau in the brain. Also, a higher load of plaque correlates with a higher degree of dementia (see slide from webinar). Plus, as this accumulation progresses and moves to different parts of the brain, there is a parallel manifestation of symptoms.
The connection seems pretty obvious. And Dr. Tanzi certainly has the credentials: back in the 80’s when he was studying Down’s Syndrome, he realized they had isolated the gene responsible for amyloid “plaque” deposits in the brain, and—given that all Down’s Syndrome sufferers end up with Alzheimer’s—thought to make a link between this gene and other cases of Alzheimer’s. From there it was one success after another, with Dr. Tanzi participating in the discovery of three of the four known gene mutations causing early-onset Alzheimer’s (these are the genes that guarantee you will get Alzheimer’s). Granted, early-onset AD accounts for only 5% of Alzheimer’s cases, but it does give weight to the conviction that Alzheimer’s has a genetic link. More recent studies looking at family history suggest that up to 80% of Alzheimer’s cases are genetically influenced (see slide from Tanzi’s presentation).
The presentation is convincing enough until you start reading the commentary in the field and start learning that current direction of research into the causes of Alzheimer’s is highly questioned.
Researchers coming on the scene today, for example, would argue that the plaque theory is circular reasoning. You can’t say that plaque leads to Alzheimer’s if you first define Alzheimer’s as “dementia with plaque.” And when your theory states that plaque accumulation leads to Alzheimer’s, the automatic null hypothesis is that where there is plaque (in copious amounts) you will always find dementia, and when plaque is cleared, dementia will go away.
But this has not born out. It is now known that “roughly one-third of all elderly adults have such plaques in their brains yet function normally.” It has also been proven that the elimination of beta amyloid plaque (achieved by the “Alzheimer’s vaccine”) does not cure dementia.
Thus the paradigm shake-up. Why continue with the biomarker research when the facts don’t bear an airtight connection? Is the “clues from our genes” group too heavily invested financially and psychologically in this line of research (as some suggest) to give it up as dead?
Dr. Tanzi responds to these fears in his recent presentation. He didn’t use the word per se, but nuance was the main come-back. All theories undergo refinement, and this plaque-causes-dementia theory is no exception. Looking at the genes may have lead to wrong conclusions in the past, but there are still some pretty interesting clues to follow going forward.
Here is a crude rendition of the protein-level pathology in Alzheimer’s:
Beta amyloid (Aβ) is cut off from its precursor protein; Aβ links to other ab in small clusters; Aβ kills nerve synapses; Aβ accumulates into plaques
For the past twenty years, research has focused on improving the symptoms of dementia by eliminating the final clusters of beta amyloid (plaques). Looking at the little diagram above, different drugs targeted the beta amyloid at different points on the linear progression toward plaque: Flurizan targeted the process that snipped the Aβ off its precursor protein; Alzemed tried to block the aggregation of Aβ; Dimebon was designed to protect the neurons from Aβ; one drug successfully immunized the brain against Aβ (resulting in clearance of plaque from the brain, inflammation in the brain, and progressive dementia); and finally, drugs were developed (Aricept and Namenda) to act at the symptomatic level.
None has had any significant effect on the brain’s function in memory tests.
Tanzi’s response? Perhaps the reason drug trials fail is that the potency of the drug is off—either too weak or too strong—and funding for a subsequent trial is cut off. Or perhaps researchers need to stare at the diagram a little longer and find out whether beta amyloid needs to be left to do some mission, then cleared before it wreaks havoc on the synapses.
Which is exactly what happened with Dr. Tanzi—a little stroll through the lab, a light-bulb moment, and Tanzi discovers that beta amyloid kills bacteria and yeast like nobody’s business. Beta amyloid is a good guy? The plaques themselves are just “a field of bullets” left over from some major battle?
Definitely worth an investigation. A new direction.
To Fund Or Not to Fund
So it turns out that looking at clues from the genes is not a paralyzing avenue of research after all. Is the paradigm really dead, or just needing refinement? In the new direction of Alzheimer’s research, Dr. Tanzi’s findings have lead to a more recent drug (PBT2) that takes the “antibiotic” role of beta amyloid into account as it tries to clear its toxic leftovers. Do we pull the plug on funding just when the story is getting really interesting?
The competition out there is fierce. You would think from some of the stinging accusations aimed at the “old school” research that funding for groups such as Tanzi’s should be questioned. Yet, as the webinar pointed out, “the vast majority of our knowledge about AD and AD drug discovery has been based on studies of the four known AD genes over the past two decades.” That’s old school success.
On the down side, “about 70% of AD genetics is unexplained by the four known AD genes.” On the further down side, it’s going to take A LOT of funding to find the genetic culprits for the rest of Alzheimer’s cases. And genetics is still only one of several approaches to studying this disease! (Besides, paradigms don’t die until a better one supersedes it, and there is no airtight theory out there yet).
Do we put all our eggs in one basket? What if there aren’t enough eggs to spread around to the different baskets?
Frankly, I don’t know the answer to this question.
There are a couple good reasons I think the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund group is worth supporting, though. One reason is the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund website itself. The Internet has plenty of faults, but it also has the advantage of open criticism. If you look at the comments sections of one of the papers put out by Tanzi’s group on the Alzheimer’s Forum, you’ll see an open debate. It’s free collaboration. It’s crowdsourcing at its best. I think it multiplies the value of your funding dollar.
Another reason is that I’ve suspected my own mother’s caseStay tuned for a post on this topic to be of possible bacterial/fungal origin and am dying to see what this group finds in their new line of research. The only thing I fear is the psychological barrier to this new approach.
A Taboo Research Project?
To be specific: the two agents being considered by Tanzi’s group as possible aggressors in the beta amyloid battle are Chlamydia and Candida Albicans. But looking at Candida Albicans as a possible cause of anything is TABOO in mainstream medicine. Just browse the comments section of a recent article in the New York Times about Candida Albicans, and you’ll see what I mean.
Will Tanzi’s group have the courage to fight all the enemies of research at the same time: tainted motives (the desire for personal glory), psychological entrapment (continuing in a line of research simply because it’s been going on for so long), and mainstream opinion about what is acceptable research (we do not look at X)?
I guess it’s going to take a lot of money to find out. Which brings us back to the basket issue.
Do we have to duplicate Alzheimer’s research at the Federal and State levels? The state of Texas, for example (being one of the top three states that will go broke paying for Alzheimer’s care in the future), is spreading its research egg money into several baskets:
* Prevention and Brain Health
* Disease Management
Why repeat this with every state, plus private groups on the side? Is there a way to get more collaboration between research groups? The well of needed funding is infinitely deep, so why are we digging multiple wells?
I guess part of the answer is that individual motivation for research (even if it is for personal glory) is the strongest kind you can find, and therefore the best engine for finding a cure. And likewise, education plus individual conviction will drive donations. There is certainly enough information available at one’s fingertips to give no one who is interested in a cure an excuse to sit on the sidelines!
So what will you do?
Because where there is a will, there will be a way to end the increasingly long goodbye.
For further reference:
Beta-Amyloid: An Antibiotic? (with a slew of interesting comments)
Alzheimer’s Brain Tangles Offer Clue To Worsening
Alzheimer’s Disease: No End to Dementia
New Potential Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease Detected
Alzheimer’s Scary Link to Diabetes
Follow the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride journal
An video report on several intriguing theories of Alzheimer’s.
Here’s what happened: I’m not a “from scratch” web coder, so I installed what’s called a “theme” for my niece’s website and used it as a springboard to create a look that would capture her life and style.
A lot of work goes into designing the look of a website, but it has to pale in comparison to all the work that goes into creating themes, or “platforms” on which creative designs are based. By the time I get my hands on designing a website, all the hard prep work has been done, and I’m presented with a lovely spring board that allows me to jump and flip and fly wherever my creative juices lead.
The other night I attended an author’s reading of a first-time novel.
The main character in the novel is an immigrant computer programmer with terrible social skills trying to navigate his way around the American culture. His mistakes are endearing and a good mirror into the idiosyncrasies of American culture.
In the question and answer period of this reading, someone shot up their hand and asked if the main character suffered from Asperger’s Disease because of his mental brilliance and social ineptitude.
I think the author’s answer was something along the lines of “uh…” which mirrored my own reaction to the question. I’d smiled at the word Asperger’s and felt my stomach lurch at the word Disease. I’ve always thought of Asperger’s more as a cool color to be rather than a disease. Besides, why the need to label?
Why can’t we just accept a different package of assets and challenges in a person and enjoy their uniqueness rather than feel the need to cubbyhole folks into categories?
I just looked up the number of brain-related disorder labels and found a list of 50, among them “intermittent explosive disorder” which is basically the display of temper tantrums. Get real, folks!
What are labels & diagnoses? Something to shield other people from us as well as something to hide behind?
My recommendation for anyone suffering from excessive labeling (both giving and taking) is to read the book “You are Special” by Max Lucado. The interesting notion in this book is that positive labeling can be as harmful as negative labeling because it enslaves us to other people’s opinions. Freedom comes in checking in constantly with our Maker and knowing He loves us as we are.
Read and re-read and practice what you read.
Dare to be yourself.
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