A couple days ago we had a March Babies birthday party here at the house. It’s a tradition my sister started a few years ago because so many of her friends have birthdays in March, and this is a great way to kill a bunch of birds with one shotgun. As I was sitting listening […]
More on the brain’s default network: The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less […]
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 […]
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 […]
Deep In The Brain is a cerebral self-examination written by a philosophy professor who was riding the top of a success wave when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Talk about the relationship between mind and brain! Here is one who, thanks to his training, steps outside himself to make an objective assessment of his behavior […]
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)
e all know, even without reading research papers, that music has emotional benefit: it can excite and calm and induce a wonderfully cathartic weeping session. This applies whether you’re healthy or sick; whether you have Parkinson’s or autism or Alzheimer’s.
But studies have found that music can also be of cognitive benefit: it helps people remember things better.
What exactly does this mean, and what specifically does it mean for an Alzheimer’s patient? Does it mean that if you play the oldies station in the background all the time, your Mom will wake up one day and remember everything again?
Let’s look at the evidence:
First of all, "music" is a pretty general term. Are we talking about singing? Playing a guitar? Listening to Mozart? Listening to Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational jazz? Believe it or not, these are all different things.
According to a study reported by Time Magazine,("Music on the Brain")
Different networks of neurons are activated [in the brain], depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.
In another study, quoted in Neuroscience for Kids,
researchers have recorded neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. During this study, awake patients heard either a song by Mozart, a folk song or the theme from "Miami Vice". These different kinds of music had different effects on the neurons in the temporal lobe.
Also, from Time'“Music on the Brain”
Experimental Audiology in Germany has shown that intensive practice of an instrument leads to discernible enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter most closely associated with higher brain function.
As you can see, different music affects different parts of the normal brain in different ways.
People are always studying the music-brain connection, trying to understand the mystery of it. There was a particular study done in 1993 that tried to see if music affected memory. The researchers used a song by Mozart for their experiment, and their results seemed to show that this composer’s music improved test-taking. This became widely known as The Mozart Effect, and people started playing Mozart to their unborn babies thinking it would give them a head start in learning.
Though later studies failed to duplicate the Mozart Effect (perhaps the only real effect is that Mozart helps relax the body right before a test), that original research sparked further research into music-as-memory-aid. A recent study, for example, found that Alzheimer’s patients can remember new information if it is sung to them much better than if it is spoken (as opposed to healthy people who can remember it equally well when sung as opposed to spoken).
We also know without reading studies that music helps trigger old memories. For example, when I hear the song "Dust in the Wind," I am immediately transported back to our family van as we drove across the country in 1977. I remember my oldest sister introducing this song to me, and how it resonated with the angst of my teenage years, etc. A whole cascade of memories brought on by a single song.
In a study reported by the Telegraph in 2009, researchers found that this recall effect is due to the fact that music is processed in the same area of the brain that forms vivid memories. They furthermore found that such memories appear to be immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And this could lead to a unique kind of therapy:
Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, …making a "soundtrack of someone’s life" before their mind is too damaged, and playing it back to them could help form a resistance to the disease.
Love the idea! Plus I have a variation on this idea from watching this next video of Bobby McFerrin (at a conference called "Notes and Neurons"), and from observing Mom as I play the piano. First, here’s Bobby:
What Bobby is doing here is getting the mind to go in a familiar direction (the pentatonic scale), then leaving an auditory blank and letting the mind fill it in. I mean, aside from jumping around, that's what he's doing. He’s giving the mind a puzzle to solve. He’s making the mind work. And working the mind is better than not working the mind if you want to keep it.
The next part of my idea came from playing the piano for Mom and watching her reaction. You should know Mom hasn’t spoken but a few words in a couple years, and she no longer sings intelligible tunes. You should also know that I don't play the piano. I used to when I was seven, but now my playing is reduced to guessing the notes with my right hand. I can play fast enough for the tune to be recognizable. Barely. Fortunately for Mom, the tune is always a hymn—something she is very familiar with. Unfortunately for Mom, I mangle the tune. And that's where the puzzle comes in.
See, when my finger's can't find the right note, Mom gets exasperated and sings it out loud to help me find the dang thing. I'm even wondering if this puzzle-solving exercise is a factor in Mom's recent awakening.
So here is my variation on the soundtrack idea. Try this exercise (for an Alzheimer’s patient) with the following video clip:
Play it once. It will probably be familiar to the listener already, but there are enough repetitions in this piece that parts of it will quickly become familiar if they aren’t already. Play the video again, but pause the video every so often. There are a ton of repeated theme snippets. Pause before a theme is repeated and see if the listener is prompted to supply the missing piece. If they do, you've got a good puzzle to use.
Then, if you do this with that "Life Playlist", you should be able to double the benefit in fighting that Alzheimer’s monster.
Music and Caregiving—Pandora to the Rescue
Alzheimer’s and Music: Stimulating the Brain into Action
Posit Science Blog, Your Brain on Jazz
American Music Conference, Music and the Brain
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.
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.
On Saturday, August 21, 2010, God took Dad home. God did not wait until we were ready for this. He waited until Heaven couldn’t stand Dad’s absence any longer.
I’m posting this video about how we deal with death in our current culture because I think our attitude of denial in the face of death needs to change. Considering my family’s immediate reaction of trying to revive Dad–even though he requested a DNR–I’m speaking from experience. Our natural tendency is to hold on as long as possible. But this isn’t necessarily the best for those we love.
Letting go is so stinking hard!!
All the more reason to think and plan ahead for the death of those you love.
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
Mom has been pretty much without language for five years now. Three years ago she would occasionally call out “Ken!” (Dad’s name) once or twice a week, but other than that, her speech was a non-stop running chatter of “geri geri geri fica fica fica mao mao” and the like. Mostly two syllable experiments in sound. Ah. Also, occasionally–and as far back as 2 1/2 years ago, she would respond to the declaration “I love you” with “too too too too.” We wrapped ourselves in that response–a definite sign of comprehension and reciprocity.
Today we don’t even get the “too too too.” But we do get eye contact and a nod, which is just as good as sign of comprehension.
For all the times I’ve felt a thrill at the connection still possible with Mom via language, I didn’t have a picture of how thrilling it was for her to know that she knew something until one day–about 18 months ago–when I took her to the bathroom. We’d been having a very hard time getting Mom to urinate. She’d hold it for eight, twelve, eighteen hours. We massaged her, waited in the bathroom with her, gave her tons of liquid in hopes of getting her to release the contents of her bladder–to no avail.
One day I sat her down and begged her to go. “Mom, go potty. Let it out. Just let it out, ok?” She leaned over and made a shooing motion with her hand and repeated, “out?” I said, “yes, let it out.” She looked at the door, repeated the shooing motion (toward the door) and said “out” with the most excitement I’d seen from her in a long time. She was ecstatic at the small bit of comprehension she possessed at that moment. She knew the word “out!” She knew the word–it’s meaning–and it gave her significance.
I suppose it was akin to the feeling Helen Keller had at the comprehension of the word “water.” It opened up the world around her; gave her instant availability to connection with other human beings; empowered her to have a “self.”
I ache for Mom and her loss of language and all that has gone with it. But thanks to her, I am richer now that I know the power I possess with a vocabulary. Comprehension via language is such a huge gift (sorry to disagree, post-modernists)!
Now, if I can just stall the loss I already feel creeping in…
The U.K. recently decided that Aricept and other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs can be prescribed for mild Alzheimer’s cases (in addition to moderate cases. See article U.K. Reverses Stance On Alzheimer’s Drugs NICE is now recommending that three drugs known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors—Aricept from Pfizer Inc. and Eisai Co.; Reminyl from Shire PLC; and Exelon from Novartis AG—be considered for use in patients with “mild” forms of Alzheimer’s, in addition to the patients with “moderate” forms of Alzheimer’s for whom NICE previously endorsed the drugs.). The more obvious reason is that these drugs should be getting cheaper once their patents expire, and therefore easier on the state’s prescription coverage budget. The less obvious reason is the relative ignorance Brits have regarding the sport of baseball.
First, you have to know how neurons and neurotransmitters work. Here is a short animation that shows how neurotransmitters work in the brain:
The cycle is a fantastically efficient one. Neurotransmitters are shocked into action, released into the synapse where they interact with receptors on the other side of the synapse, then swept up to make room for the next wave of neurotransmitters.
In Alzheimer’s, the favorite neurotransmitter tagetted by drug companies is acetylcholine because it is crucial for the formation of new memories. In the Alzheimer’s brain, there is an increasing shortage of acetylcholine, making it harder and harder for the brain to form new memories. The enzyme that recycles acetylcholine is acetylcholinesterase. What Aricept (an acetycholinesterase inhibitor) does is inhibit this recycling process, so the neurotransmitters hang around longer in the synapse and interact more often with memory-forming receptors.
Here is a video of a different neurotransmitter (serotonin) and its recycling inhibitor. It’s a good picture of the process that takes place with acetylcholine and acetycholinesterase inhibitors:
All of this is easier for Americans to grasp, because it can be compared to baseball: in baseball, players are stored in the dugout, called into action on the field, then recycled back into the dugout when their action is no longer called for.
Suppose that a team were to lose all but four of its players. Someone would have to block the dugout so the players wouldn’t sit back on the bench but rather take up the bat once more.
The players are the acetylcholine, the rule that sends them back into the dugout is the acetycholinesterase, and the person blocking the dugout when there is a shortage of players is the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
This also, by the way, illustrates why Aricept et al eventually fail: the four players get tired of playing the whole game all season long and quit.
Someone must have finally explained baseball to the Brits.
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.
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.
Anyway, ever since my sister-in-law’s mother was taken to the doctor with signs of Alzheimer’s and discovered to have nothing but dehydration, I’ve been meaning to read up on how exactly the lack of water hinders brain function.
Here’s what I found about dehydration and the aging brain:
Not much—unless you count articles on websites trying to sell water filtration systems.
The fact that water makes up 70-80% of a nerve cell and transports both nutrients and wastes from neurons means it is essential for proper brain function all through life. That’s a given. What’s not a given is how much a brain has to be depleted of water to affect cognition.
Rigorous research on the topic of the brain and dehydration is limited. Even the “standard facts” about the body and water are all over the place: babies come out of the womb composed of 90% water; no, 78%; no, make that 70%. In adults, the proportion is 60% water for males and 55% for females. The consensus is 50-60% for adults in general. The brain is 60% water; nay, 90%. Whatever.
As for how much water you need to drink on a daily basis to be properly hydrated, oy, there is no consensus. For years I’ve been hearing “8 cups a day.” No allowance for a sedentary life or for someone with a diet of fruits and vegetables (which are high in water content); no penalty for eating junk food (which would increase the need for the detoxifying properties of water) or for spending days cooped up near a wood stove.
One article quoted the Mayo Clinic as saying that “the average adult loses more than 80 ounces of water every day through sweating, breathing, and eliminating wastes,” and therefore you’d have to drink 10 cups of water/day to rehydrate. I searched for the quote on the Mayo Clinic site and didn’t find it. Instead, I found a recommendation for 6-8 cups of water per day.
Suppose you take the most conservative recommendation of 6 cups per day–do you follow that? I don’t think I’ve ever gone one whole week drinking that much per day.
It has been estimated that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. OK, that figure is questioned. But it seems to be a fairly hard fact that “among people over 65, dehydration is one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization.”* Understandable: throw in a bit of incontinence, and fear of hydration soars. Also, some medications are diuretics, and after 50, the body loses kidney function and is less able to conserve fluids.*
But how bad is dehydration for your brain?
According to Lumosity, when your body lacks water,
brain cells and other neurons shrink and biochemical processes involved in cellular communication slow. A drop of as little as 1 to 2% of fluid levels can result in slower processing speeds, impaired short-term memory, tweaked visual tracking and deficits in attention. With proper hydration however, neurons work best and are capable of reacting faster.
But pinning down the exact link between hydration and cognitive function is tricky in the lab. From Hydration and Human Cognition:
Although adequate hydration is essential for optimal brain function, research addressing relationships between hydration status and human behavior and cognitive function is limited. The few published studies in this area are inconclusive and contradictory. The impact of variations in hydration status, which can be substantial as humans go about their daily activities, on brain function and behavior is not known and may impact quality of life.
From PubMed’s Hydration and Cognition: a Critical Review and Recommendations for Future Research: “The limited literature on the effects of dehydration on human cognitive function is contradictory and inconsistent.” The monkey wrench in research here is given as confounding factors:
Confounding factors, such as caffeine intake and the methods used to produce dehydration, need to be considered in the design and conduct of such studies. Inclusion of a positive control condition, such as alcohol intake, a hypnotic drug, or other treatments known to produce adverse changes in cognitive performance should be included in such studies. To the extent possible, efforts to blind both volunteers and investigators should be an important consideration in study design.
On the Mayo Clinic site, a Dr. Lette finds that “there’s no scientific evidence that drinking large amounts of water is good for one’s health.” The recommendation in this article is to drink when you’re thirsty, and that’s enough.
My question is, does the lack of scientific evidence mean there is no scientific proof or merely that there is no motivation to research the topic to obtain the evidencef? Who, after all, would fund research into water being fundamental to the health of the aging brain? Not the pharmaceutical industry. If you could avoid dementia by being continually hydrated, you wouldn’t need pills to fix dementia. Why would any self-respecting drug company fund that finding? And if it takes a lot of money to work through all the confounding factors, who’s going to pay for it?
The thing is, when the anecdote about my sister-in-law’s mother is not even rare, it makes me wonder how many cases of Alzheimer’s are checked for a history of dehydration. I don’t mean just the over-the-weekend kind of dehydration, but long-term, chronic shortage of water.
As with Mom. The list of things Mom was doing “right” for her aging brain is stellar: she was highly educated, spoke multiple languages, was given to prayer and meditation, was active in the community, etc., etc. Yet she succumbed to complete dementia in her early seventies! Could it all have been due to her severe distaste for water? I mean, she hated water–would gag if she drank it straight from the tap. Could her present dementia have been prevented by a regimen of 4+ cups of plain ole water daily?
I hate to look at the “what if” from Mom’s point of view, but for our generation and beyond, it needs a good deal more consideration than we’re giving it.
What do you think? Am I grasping at straws? (I suppose that’s OK as long as the straw is propped inside a nice glass of water, right?).
Water and Brain Function
Water in the Body”
You’re Not Demented, Just Dehydrated
Dehydration and Cognitive Performance
Hydration and Cognitive Function in Children
Nerve and Muscle Cells
Impaired cognitive function and mental performance in mild dehydration
So I re-listened to the Fresh Air segment today, then did some quick digging through articles I’ve seen online on the brain, stirred it all around, let it simmer some more, and here is the reduction I got.
Maybe our addiction to the pursuit of happiness is contributing to brain aging. It’s not an umbrella cause, of course. You would never have been able to say that Mom led a hedonistic lifestyle. And Ronald Reagan pursued a lot more things than happiness. But still… The connection between what Dr. Linden was saying and what I’ve read makes me suspicious.
In David Linden’s Compass of Pleasure, he talks about the pleasure area of the brain as being that part that–in response to certain activities or substances–produces dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain. It is activated when we engage in certain activities or thought processes, but it is also activated when we injest/inject food, alcohol, narcotics.
Some things that produce dopamine are completely healthy. Like a good run, the enjoyment of friends, reading a stimulating book.
Some things are borderline good. Like food. Everybody needs it. The pleasure of good food produces dopamine. But when pleasure is sought after for pleasure’s sake, “the brain’s dopaminergic circuitry gets blunted. In all cases of producing pleasure in the brain, it takes increasing levels [of a thing] to produce the same level of pleasure” (quoting Dr. L). So with food, you eventually get overweightness if the pleasure of food is pursued beyond the body’s need for it. Obesity is contributing to an epidemic of Diabetes, which is strongly linked to brain aging. By indirect means, then, the pursuit of a happy palate can lead to brain aging.
Then there are things that produce dopamine (or cause its production) that are not healthy. Like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine. This falls in with the acetaldehyde hypothesis I wrote about in Does Alzheimer’s Take Guts. Alcohol, cocaine, and especially cigarette smoke have–at some point in their metabolic breakdown–the toxic aldehyde acetaldehyde. Very destructive to the brain. Dopamine is produced as the end-process of breaking down harmful aldehydes into harmless acids. It’s the brain’s “Yahoo!” after saving the day from the bad guys. That “Yahoo!” may be a good thing, but again, in order to get it a second, third, and nth time, you have to increase the attack on the body. [Interestingly, Disulfiram‘s use to treat alcohol and cocaine addiction works by inhibiting ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase) which is the enzyme that metabolizes acetaldehyde. It lets the toxin do its full work rather than disabling it by metabolizing it into a harmless acid. So the brain does not get its “yahoo!” And if you get no yahoo, you don’t repeat the action.]
The problem with focusing on happiness above all else is that we may end up using the short-cut and more harmful methods of getting that dopamine high.
Dr. Linden’s solution? “Try to take your pleasures broadly: exercise, meditate, learn, have moderate consumption of alcohol, moderate consumption of food.”
I would add: pursue friendships, do charitable work, tend a garden, read a good book (get more ideas at Changing Aging).
As Captain Kirk once said, “There are a million things you can have and a million things you can’t have. Choose the million you can.”
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A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.
After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.
If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.
No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.
This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”
My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.
Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.
But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.
Colossal goals risk colossal failures.
Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?
“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”
Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.
Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:
“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”
I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).
But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.
I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.
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