Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
By now it’s not news that scientists at Case Western have successfully used a cancer drug to clear plaques from the brains of mice that were engineered to have Alzheimer’s, resulting in a reversal of rodent dementia. The hope is that this drug will do the same for humans.
Here is a more in-depth explanation of Bexarotene (“Drug Reverses Alzheimer’s Symptoms in Mice”):
Alzheimer’s disease arises in large part from the body’s inability to clear naturally-occurring amyloid beta from the brain.
In 2008, Case Western Reserve University researcher Gary Landreth, professor of neurosciences at School of Medicine, discovered that the main cholesterol carrier in the brain, Apolipoprotein E (ApoE), facilitated the clearance of the amyloid beta proteins. [...] The elevation of brain ApoE levels, in turn, speeds the clearance of amyloid beta from the brain. Bexarotene acts by stimulating retinoid X receptors, which control how much ApoE is produced. …bexarotene improved memory deficits and behaviour even as it also acted to reverse the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease [and] worked quickly to stimulate the removal of amyloid plaques from the brain.
[T]he drug addresses the amount of both soluble and deposited forms of amyloid beta within the brain and reverses the pathological features of the disease in mice.
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
My last post on niacinamide and Alzheimer’s (it’s supposed to reverse Alzheimer’s de-mentiaThe Coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) has been used as medication in 17 patients suffering from de-mentia of the Alzheimer type in an open label trial. In all patients evaluated so far, an improvement in their cognitive dysfunction was observed. Based on the minimental state examination, the minimum improvement was 6 points and the maximum improvement 14 points with a mean value of 8.35 points. The improvement on the basis of the global deterioration scale (GDS) was a minimum of 1 point and a maximum of 2 points with a mean value of 1.82. The duration of therapy was between 8 and 12 weeks. No side effects or adverse effects have been reported from the patients or their caregivers during the observation period which is, in some patients, more than a year. This open label trial represents a pilot study from which no definitive conclusion can be drawn. A double-blind placebo controlled study is necessary
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that’s what I mean. You read something about Alzheimer’s, and all of a sudden you see evidence everywhere that you’ve got it and that your life is over.
I’ve avoided reading Still Alice for years precisely because I knew it would send me reeling with the truth of my own “probable” early-onset Alzheimer’s. But I did finally pick it up, and, sure enough, suffered a major breakdown right about chapter three. Yikes! I do have it. Just like Alice, I forgot I was supposed to work on Friday, and when my sister called to remind me, I crumbled. It’s not just that I forgot. It’s that I forgot and didn’t have that nagging feeling telling me that I was forgetting something eating away at me. It was the peaceful forgetting that terrified me. Surely this doesn’t happen to a person unless they have Alzheimer’s. Ever. Right?
Is this forgetting normal or something more sinister? Is it stress from caring for Mom with Alzheimer’s and Dad with Parkinson’s (with a touch of menopause for me), or am I following in my mother’s footsteps?
The lucky thing for me is that I don’t have medical insurance–which means I can’t go to a doctor for a diagnosis. I say I’m lucky because, as we all know, it’s not so much the disease that hurts people, it’s the diagnosis. And it’s not just any diagnosis. Cancer, people rally around you. Alzheimer’s or any kind of mental illness, and the room empties out.
Shoot, you can have the disease for years, but as soon as you get diagnosed, that’s when the tazing starts. People just automatically take out their stigma-tazers and start shooting. And they think they have it set on stun, but really those stigma-tazers are always set on kill.
So my question is, what do you do when you read or hear about terrifying conditions to keep yourself from assuming yourself into that condition and absorbing the fear that is often marketed with it? How do you “keep your head, when all about are losing theirs”? (Kippling)
And once you’re diagnosed, how do you overcome all that tazing?
Chuck’s blog on early onset Alzheimer’s is, I think, a courageous way of dealing with one such diagnosis.
What is your way of dealing with the fear of Alzheimer’s–whether it’s diagnosed or imagined?
Yesterday I asked my sister—who is visiting from abroad—what signs of Alzheimer’s she sees in herself. She rattled off some memory problems such as forgetting names of acquaintances or not being able to place someone’s face when out of context. Nothing particularly Alzheimersy, just decreased mental sharpness.
She then asked me if I was experiencing any unusual mental hyperabilities and went on to explain how she seems to have gained a fantastic ability to call up words she didn’t even know she knew.
Funny, I told her. I had this post saved as a draft when she asked me the question. The answer is yes, I’m experiencing this very same thing, and am curious to know if there is a name for it.
Is there such a thing as hyperphasia—the flip side of aphasia? The term hyperphasia exists, and it’s defined as an uncontrolled impulse to talk. But that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the mind’s sudden ability to pull up obscure words when common words won’t present themselves. Words so obscure that we had no idea we knew them.
I’m well acquainted with aphasia—the “tip of the tongue but it just won’t come” nature of language loss. I’m also familiar with another embarrassing result of gradual mental decline: the mind’s tendency to call up words similar in shape, but wholly different in meaning from the one the user wants. Try Googling “fairy schedule” next time you want to cross the Puget Sound to see what I mean.
But what is it called when the mind calls up unknown words that perfectly fit the context they were intended for? Does neurology study mental surfeits as well as deficits?
I told my sister that I’ve had arguments in my head over this new ability. One night, for example, I went to bed, and as I lay my head on the pillow a picture of our living room doorway came to mind, and with it the word “transom.” I immediately questioned myself:
“Transom? What’s that?”
“It’s the big piece that spans the top of the doorway, dummy.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I don’t know. I just know that it is.”
“You’re probably thinking of Hansom. And I think that’s a horse carriage, not a doorway.”
“No, I know hansom is a carriage. Transom is the door thingy.”
With that, I got out of bed and looked the word up in the dictionary: a horizontal crossbar in a window, over a door, or between a door and a window or fanlight above it
“OK, you were right.”
My sister laughed and said, yes, that’s exactly what goes through her brain.
So my question is, what is this newly acquired hyper-phasia called? And is it common to everyone as their minds begin to deteriorate?
If you click on the picture at left, you'll hear the loveliest little story about a nursing home in Germany that decided to install a fake bus stop in front of their facility for patients to go to and "de-stress." Folks would go out to the bus stop thinking they'd get on a bus and go home. But after a few minutes of waiting, they'd forget why they were there and go back inside, no longer agitated and afraid.
So, if lying achieves a good end, is it OK?
Looking at it another way, is the aim of interaction to be correct or to be kind?
In the bus stop story, think about what it is the patient really wants when he waits for the bus. He wants home and family. But why? He wants these things because they mean acceptance and love.
So if the bus stop allows a patient to calm down enough for a staff member to have a soothing, friendly visit with them, is it not giving them what they were after in the first place? And is this not Truth?
This is the same rationale for communicating with Alzheimer's patients even when they are home with family. The point isn’t to constantly correct your loved one ("no, it’s not morning, it’s evening;" or, "no, my name isn’t Mary, it’s Marty"). We’re not here to elicit factual correctness from each other, but to honor each other as full-fledged beings created in the image of God—regardless to what extent we are broken.
And, no, I'm not a post-modernist saying there are no facts, or that facts are what we want them to be.
Just saying, facts aren't the point. Love is.
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.
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:
John Thorndike’s The Last of His Mind is a work skinned in the devastating story of Alzheimer’s, but shows what an unexpected gift caregiving can be for a child who longs to understand the one who shaped so much of his own understanding of life and relationships.
In these pages, John Thorndike gives up the comforts of his normal life in Ohio to care for his father in the last year of his battle against Alzheimer’s. John takes this time to examine himself in the light of the two people who shaped him most—his proper, emotionally absent New England father and his passionate, dissatisfied mother. “No wonder I study my parents,” he says. “Within the compass of their lives, everything is foretold.”
More than anything, the author wants a peek at his father’s heart, but finds it impossible to reach through the shining armor that encases him. In the end, though, he finds that it’s not his father’s armor that shines, but his character. And in the end, the year of loneliness and frustration yields the sweetest of fruit: a softer, mended heart.
John Thorndike brings out the True by exposing the Fraud, and it’s contagious. I feel wholly exposed after reading this book, yet more able to forgive myself, to love Dad—imperfections and all, and to accept the inherently flawed but courageous effort we all make in loving those closest to us.
True, this book is about the beastliness of Alzheimer’s, but it should be read by anyone who hungers to know a parent and to find themselves healed in the acceptance of an imperfect knowledge.
- 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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