Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
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.
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.
A Compromised Gut and Aging
Suppose we throw out the acetaldehyde-in-the-blood-and-brain hypothesis. Even if the liver can keep up with the load, the process of breaking down acetaldehyde into a harmless acetate itself will upset the NADH/NAD balance.
NAD (nicotinamide adenoid dinucleotide) is the most important co-enzyme in the body. Aldehyde dehydrogenase depends on it to break down toxic aldehydes. SIRT1 depends on it to keep cells from committing suicide. It is the key to glucose metabolism. Etc.
A shortage of NAD is a normal part of aging:
Once pancreatic β cells and neurons start having functional problems due to inadequate NAD biosynthesis, other peripheral tissues/organs would also be affected through insulin secretion and central metabolic regulation so that the metabolic robustness would gradually deteriorate over age at a systemic level. This cascade of robustness breakdown triggered by a decrease in
Yesterday I finished reading Still Alice. I think the title is meant to be a loaded question. Can I, after losing all memory of others and self, still be considered to be myself? Am I still “me” if I don’t have a clue what that me is or was?
The fictional book answers the question affirmatively.
I found myself examining my perceptions of Mom–who obviously no longer knows herself–and thinking the conclusion was absolutely true. I still recognize Mom in this shell of a person. She still has the same mannerisms, exudes the same kind affection, displays the same funny reactions. She’s still Mom down to the core.
But not so much with Dad–a victim of Parkinson’s. It seems I recognize him less and less. But then, I suppose I’m holding a higher standard of “self” to Dad, giving that I’m assuming he’s more “there” than mom. If I were to strip him down to mannerisms alone, I would probably find him to be his old self too. It’s a tricky question.
At the very end of the novel, Alice has a moment of lucidy and says, “I miss myself.”
That statement struck me to the core. You know why? Because I miss being me too! There is this incredible longing inside me to be “more” or “better” or “fuller” or something. I fall way short of the me I want to be, and I long for (or miss) that. Yet I still want to be treated as though I were fully “me” even though I don’t meet my own standard for myself.
Why not, then, treat the Alzheimer’s victim as though they were fully themselves, regardless of how short they fall from the perfect version of that self?
Ultimately, our longing is for acceptance, love, safety. Let’s just make a pact to offer it unconditionally to each other regardless of where we are on this journey toward the perfect self.
Alzheimer’s and the Ego: the Power of No
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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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.
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
In continuation of Alzheimer’s and Glucose Metabolism: The Niacinamide Experiment Part 1
This post is simply me mulling over things I’ve read in light of Mom’s dementia and my own experience with stress and mental short-circuiting, with the conclusion that in some cases of Alzheimer’s, intestinal flora could be greatly to blame. My conclusion also points to the possible way niacinamide could function in correcting one of the malfunctions in the gut-brain axis.
The Gut-Brain Axis
In-depth studies of human intestinal microbes are just now coming into maturity. The Human Microbiome Project is fueled by the increasing belief that the population of bacteria and yeasts that inhabit the human digestive tract is greatly responsible for how the body and mind develop and how they continue to function or malfunction as we tinker with the balance of flora in our gut:
Visionaries are hoping for cures for some forms of obesity and anorexia along with various forms of cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, lupus, and most of the major psychiatric diseases. In the future, Blaser [of the infectious-disease research lab at New York University] says, pediatricians could help prevent these diseases by infecting babies with a starter kit of friendly bacteria. “Bottom line, humans and our fellow animals have been colonized by microbes for a very long time, going back a billion years. The microbes that we carry have been selected because they are helpful to us. They participate in human physiology. They are a compartment of the body, like the liver or the heart.” (1)
When the BP oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico, we were all
If you’re like me and need a visual representation of the brain’s anatomy to understand Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research better, here are a few good slide shows and videos for your educational pleasure:
How The Brain Works
From the Mayo Clinic. This is a good starter slide show of the brain’s main functions. In eight slides you get a basic outline of the lobes of the brain and their purposes.
Dementia Pictures Slideshow: Disorders of the Brain
From MedicineNet. These 31 slides show what happens to the brain in cortical, subcortical, progressive, primary, and secondary dementias.
From the Alzheimer’s Association. In 17 slides you will learn about the brain’s basic functions, then how the brain is affected in Alzheimer’s by amyloid beta plaques and tau tangles.
Zoom In and Search for a Cure
From Emergent Universe. This is a fun, artsy, and very interactive show depicting what happens in the brain affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. Among other things, you will discover why ab42 is more toxic than ab40.
Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease
This is a video put out by several government organizations (the NIH, NIA…) showing the pathology of Alzheimer’s in the brain.
The Secret Life of the Brain
From PBS. Here are three interactive shows (requires Shockwave), including, History of the Brain, 3-D Brain Anatomy, Mind Illusions, and Scanning the Brain.
Brain Rules: Sleep
Now that findings show beta amyloid buildup is cleared during sleep, this slide show will be of special interest, as it shows the role of sleep in brain function.
All my life I considered myself an introvert, a private person, ungifted in the art of validating people.
In my early forties (a couple minutes ago), I bought a small restaurant, and all this changed. I grew by leaps and bounds in my fascination with people of all stripes and in my ability to dig beneath the surface and find the gold within. I grew in my ability to remember names, know faces, discover connections, and find new ways to validate people. I got high on it—on my ability to validate. It validated me in return.
Then one day this abruptly ended. I crashed. I had been working seven-day weeks for two and a half years, and my body and mind couldn’t take it anymore. The first scary sign of stress was when some of the music I played every day at the cafe lost its familiarity. I was evidently unable to learn new music. Then it was faces. New ones wouldn’t stick, and old but infrequent ones were a struggle to recall. I was filled with doubt when in conversation: what had we talked about the previous time? Did they just come from Europe, or were they going to Europe? I couldn’t remember.
Stress fried my brain, and my validation skills went with it. Nothing, but nothing hurt as much as having a newly-made friend appear and me not know who they were for ten or twenty seconds. The eager look on their face faded instantly, and nothing could bring it back. No amount of remembering in a few seconds would make up for my initial inability to validate them. I died a little bit every time it happened.
I wanted to resign from life. Retreat. Embrace my pre-cafe, introverted self. I wanted to be given a chance to explain (there is no such thing). I cried, prayed angrily, tried to bargain with God.
How do you love people when the principal organ of love—the brain—is shot?
I realized eventually that I was mourning my ego, not my lost ability to validate people—because I hadn’t lost the ability. I’d only lost the ability to do so in a way that would make me look good. There were and are plenty of opportunities to extend kindness and touch people’s souls even if we can’t immediately recall a face. It just takes an awful lot of something to give up the craving for reciprocity.This also showed me that validating was not my natural gift. To meet someone for whom it is, you must meet Jan Petersen. This afternoon I watched the video Jan’s Story: Love and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s again and re-discovered a true hero. Even with severe dementia, Jan knows how to seize each day and touch each person she meets. Jan’s is both a heart-wrenching and heart-warming story. Many people go through life mentally intact yet unable to see the goodness that surrounds them. Then you meet someone like Jan whose indomitable spirit sheds significance on everything and everyone she sees—regardless of her inability to name things.
The validation breakdown begins with us who think Jan’s story is nothing but a tragedy. But I tell you, if I could pick one trait to take with me on the dark road into oblivion, I’d pick Jan’s ability to validate without requirement; to love without strings attached; to milk each moment and each encounter.
That is the validation breakthrough!
Here are four more of my current heros—people with early onset Alzheimer’s who put themselves in the crosshairs of the stigma-tazers so they can help the rest of us see a little bit of the road ahead:
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.
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.
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.
- alzheimer's antipsychotics art award body-language book-review cancer caregiving causes coping cues cure death dementia diagnosis diet Dimebon disabilities drugs early-onset ego end-stages fear gadgets gut heredity humor images language lifestyle metabolism movies music parkinson's phenotype prevention progression research seniors slideshow stigma stress symptoms validation violence
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