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 […]
Like the title of this blog says, there are things to be learned from all kinds of dementias. Here is a particularly astounding thing to learn: severe autism does not necessarily mean the sufferer is mentally retarded. This video will shock you into looking beyond the outward appearance of those who cannot communicate and into […]
The first thing you have to know about Mom is that she is the biggest sweetheart on the planet. She has always said “yes” to anyone who asked her for a favor or a meal or a ride or even cash. We used to berate her over some of these decisions. “Mom, you’re just enabling […]
In my research on Alzheimer’s and glucose metabolism, I ran across a fascinating article about the brain’s default system–that part of the brain that is affected in Alzheimer’s Disease; that part of the brain that hogs glucose like no other part of the brain.
In The Secret Life of the Brain, Douglas Fox brings together research on the default network beginning with Dr. Sokoloff who, in his attempt to find out why the brain uses so much glucose (20% of the body’s supply), discovered that the brain uses as much energy while “at rest” as it does while performing tasks.
Later, a neuroscientist named Marcus Reichle discovered a kind of “brain within the brain” that works its butt off when it’s supposedly in “idle mode.”
Raichle and Shulman published a paper in 2001 suggesting that they had stumbled onto a previously unrecognised “default mode” – a sort of internal game of solitaire which the brain turns to when unoccupied and sets aside when called on to do something else. This brain activity occurred largely in a cluster of regions arching through the midline of the brain, from front to back, which Raichle and Shulman dubbed the default network (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 98, p 676).
It was found that some parts of this network devoured 30 per cent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain. Since part of this default system is in constant communication with the hippocampus (which records every day memories), Reichler speculated that its function was to sort, evaluate, and categorize memories in such a way that would allow the brain to use the past as an “inner rehearsal” for considering future actions and choices.
Brilliant. Just when you think daydreaming is a waste of time, it turns out it’s crucial for living.
Raichle now believes that the default network is involved, selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective – whether they’re good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can.
In support of this idea, Raichle points out that the default network constantly chatters with the hippocampus. It also devours huge amounts of glucose, way out of proportion to the amount of oxygen it uses. Raichle believes that rather than burning this extra glucose for energy it uses it as a raw material for making the amino acids and neurotransmitters it needs to build and maintain synapses, the very stuff of memory. “It’s in those connections where most of the cost of running the brain is,” says Raichle.
Reichler later attented a lecture by an Alzheimer’s specialist and was shown a map of beta amyloid plaques (those clumps found in Alzheimer’s autopsies) in the brain. The picture looked exactly like the default network!
Raichle, Greicius and Buckner have since found that the default network’s pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. Half of people with memory problems go on to develop the disease, but which half? “Can we use what we’ve learned to provide insight into who’s at risk for Alzheimer’s?” says Buckner.
That got me thinking…
Maybe one reason we lose memories is that our lifestyle doesn’t allow for much rich idle time like when we would sit on the porch sipping sweet tea on a hot afternoon. So the default network can never do its work of sorting and categorizing memories, and consequently we lose them.
And if this is a problem with the present generation, how much moreso for the upcoming generation. We are consumed with having something to pay attention to all the time. Just look at TV screens these days: not only do you have the main screen, but there’s the pop-up ad for the “next show,” a caption for what’s going on on the screen, and a ticker at the bottom of the screen for what’s happening elsewhere.
Maybe part of the solution for AD is the “quiet space” to be incorporated in school, at work, and at home. Hmm, come to think of it, I offered this very solution in a comment to an article in Time Magazine back in 09 (Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out):
I predict that the twitterification of our society is going to lead to an exponential increase in early-onset Alzheimer’s. We’re increasing the rate of input to our brains and decreasing the time for processing information, and our brains are going to revolt. That, in turn, will lead to the next big industry: de-twitterification rooms where you can sit alone and unconnected, with nothing but a giant aquarium and a beanbag. -Marty
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
As I was sitting listening to our various conversations around the table, something struck me as different this year. We’re all hovering around 50—give or take a couple years—and the aging process is beginning to take a more prominent seat at the table. Not only do conversation topics start with the premise of aging: declining health, the cost of health insurance, etc, but it seems that no matter what the topic, it eventually touches on something to do with aging.
Today a nice physical therapist came to assess a treatment program for Dad—to help him regain his balance and mobility and in so doing help him milk the summer ahead of us.
A couple hours later, while sitting at the table Dad asked me in an unusually clear voice, "What's the agenda?"
I looked up from the computer, slid my glasses down, and asked back, "Agenda for your physical therapy?"
"Agenda for life?" (I thought I’d go for the gusto).
"Yes." He smiled.
"Ah. Well. The agenda for life is to live more fully. You are going to get back to being more fully you. We are going to visit the local museum, go see the natural wonders around us, go to the big city to check out the OMSI exhibit."
He smiled more broadly. We're on the right track.
Shoot, this Parkinson's is going to be a nuisance, but we are going to live one shaky bite, one shuffling step, one tough lesson, one adventurous ride, one grateful day at a time.
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.
Another thing I got from Oliver Sacks’ book was a new notion of the power of music in dealing with dementia. My previous post on music and Alzheimer’s dealt exclusively with the notion of music as a memory stimulant. But Sacks’ book made me realize that music can be used as a tool to organize thought and action in the present—in the midst of neurological damage.
Yesterday as I lay down for a recuperative nap, I listened to a Scarlatti sonata in the background, and immediately got a visual sense of what goes on in the brain when music is played. The first picture that came to mind was an animation of DNA transcription: that funny little zipper head that makes a perfect copy of your DNA as it unzips the double helix. Nibble, nibble, nibble, copy, copy, copy. Then I saw Scarlatti’s sonata as doing the opposite with my thoughts: grabbing all the randomness in my mind and knitting it into a useful strand, or, if you want to be more esoteric, turning it into functional narrative.
In Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the first clinical case is of a man who had lost all “sense of familiarity:” he could not recognize faces, body parts, food, clothing. Sacks wondered how the man (also a music professor) could function with this neurological deficit, so he went to visit him in his own home. It turned out the man had a very musical brain, and he functioned by humming a tune as he went about his daily business. He could eat as long as he sang, but if interrupted, would no longer recognize his food and would stop eating. He could dress by the same means. His wife would set out his clothes for the day, and he would only recognize them as clothes and dress himself once he started singing! His musical brain was compensating for his lost sense of recognition.
And now I remember a funny little entry by Bob Demarco on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room that is seriously brilliant. He talks about using music to stimulate his mother into action:
My sister was shocked when I told her on the phone that I finally “convinced” my mother to drink prune juice after years of trying and failure. Joanne was here and saw my mother refusing to drink and calling the prune juice poison. It was only after I introduced the “prune juice song” that my mother starting drinking the juice every day and the dreaded Poop-E problem was solved.
I also have the pee song, the poop song, and a long list of songs soon to be number one hits.
This is exactly what Oliver Sacks would have recommended! Music and Alzheimer’s (and Parkinson’s and most other dementias): stimulating the mind into action.
Because it’s Fall and crisp out and a good time to sit down to a good movie, I’m posting one of my favorite suggestions for a movie that deals with Alzheimer’s.
How To Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog is an unfortunate title for a great movie about self-centeredness and the cure for immaturity. The story centers around a playwright with writer’s block who must exit himself in order to find inspiration. Alzheimer’s isn’t the main theme of the movie, but it is present in the background, and the most lucidly-spoken scene in the movie is between the mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s and her brilliant, unhappy son-in-law.
Thought I’d pass it on.
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.
Like the title of this blog says, there are things to be learned from all kinds of dementias. Here is a particularly astounding thing to learn: severe autism does not necessarily mean the sufferer is mentally retarded. This video will shock you into looking beyond the outward appearance of those who cannot communicate and into the soul.
Sometimes I wonder how much like this girl my mother is. How much does she really know about what’s going on around her?
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]
It's just one doctor after another these days…
We barely got to the clinic and we were both already exhausted: Dad from getting dressed, fed, squeezed into a jacket, compressed into the car, ejected from the car, and hung in a wheelchair. Me from doing all that to him without the cooperation of his muscles. We didn’t even want to go into the clinic. I told Dad that what we should do is write a children's book about aging and how fun it is. Dad laughed. I said we could describe how you get to ride around in a cool scooter—even inside the house. And how you get to have cool leopard print all over your skin without paying a cent for it. And how if you get skin cancer on your ear, you have to have a chunk cut off (like Dad) and then you can fit right in with the folks at Rivendell or Lothlorien.
I really see some potential there.
Might as well take this big old lemon and make lemonade.
(P.S. If you have any more ideas for the book, let me know)
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.
The first thing you have to know about Mom is that she is the biggest sweetheart on the planet. She has always said “yes” to anyone who asked her for a favor or a meal or a ride or even cash. We used to berate her over some of these decisions. “Mom, you’re just enabling them to go get drunk,” or whatever. We’d rather keep our boundaries intact. Keep safe. Not Mom. She’d rather “do onto others” as Jesus wanted her to do–and let Jesus take care of punishment if the recipient abused the gift.
With that in mind, it puzzles me that these days, the word most frequently pulled out of her tiny residual vocabulary (5-10 words at present) is the word “no.”
“Mom, shall we get up?”
“Mom, isn’t this music pretty?”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
Here’s the curious part. Her body language still says “yes.” So why the verbal “no”?
I’m thinking that this knee-jerk negation is her last recourse to individuality. Having lost most of what makes her a person, she is resorting to negation as a way to distinguish herself from others.
Think about it. “Yes” blends us into other people. It’s a unifying word. It accepts. It serves. It hugs and becomes one with the other.
“No” on the other hand, puts up a wall between the self and the other. It says, I am me and you are you and it’s going to stop there.
It’s Mom’s only way, I believe, to retain a feeling of self.
And that revelation changes how I look at the world. You wonder why some people just can’t play nice in the world arena; why they have to say “no” to constructive engagement; why they have to strap bombs around themselves and “no” themselves and other people into oblivion.
Perhaps it’s because those people feel that a “yes” will blend them into the will of the other–a will that is unacceptable to their idea of a healthy self. A “no,” they feel, is the only way they’ll be seen.
Do you see what I’m saying? The ego’s boundaries collapse under yes. “No” is the last bastion of the tormented ego.
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:
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:
- 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
- Jaini King: I am so sorry for your loss...from reading your po...
- Marty D: Jaini, I ache for you, your mom, and your dad. Mom...
- Jaini King: I found your blog snd I could not stop reading. M...
- tiago: In researching the human gut over the last few wee...
- Deborah: I wanted to speak to John more about his father's ...
- "Where to, Bud?" Early Onset Alzheimer's Blog - A thoughtful blog by a man with early onset Alzheimer’s
- Alzheimer's Reading Room - In it for the long run with Dotty
- Alzheimer's Research Forum - Targeting Breakthrough Research
- Annals of Neurology - Latest studies in neurology
- Changing Aging by Dr. Bill Thomas
- How to Live a Longer Life - Nutrition ideas and secrets on increasing longevity
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease - an international multidisciplinary journal with a mission to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment and psychology of Alzheimer’s
- Kris Bakowski's Blog on Early-Onset Alzheimer's - Kris is an active advocate for Alzheimer’s research
- Posit Science Blog - mind science
- The Dopamine Diaries - Lucid reflections on Dementia Care and Aging Well
- The Hope of Alzheimer's - Mary Kay Baum and sisters with early-onset speak out
- The Last of His Mind - Joe Thorndike, once the managing editor of Life and the founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, succumbs to Alzheimer’s
- The Myth of Alzheimer's - A doctor’s perspective on Alzheimer’s
- The Tangled Neuron - A Layperson Reports on Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s & Dementia
- The Brain’s Springboard to Creativity
- Citizen Science: Help Shed Light on the Brain-Gut Connection
- Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
- Living With The Jabberwocky
- Free Academy for The Aging Brain
- Water and The Aging Brain
- Best of the Web Nomination
- Bexarotene: Hope, Hype, Hooold It!
- Guest Post: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now
- The Brain: Divided We Conquer
- We are All Snowmen
- Does the Pursuit of Happiness Lead to Brain Aging?
- The Compulsion to Label
- The Myth of Alzheimer’s: Book Review