The Scientific Battle Against Alzheimer’s Disease

HBO’s documentary, “The Alzheimer’s Project”, is free for viewing on their website.  If you have not yet seen it, make sure to take a look because this masterfully crafted, easily digestible film is an eye-opening look at Alzheimer’s disease, those who are afflicted by it, and those who are working to stop it.  The heartbreaking stories and informative scientific analysis meld together to easily convince any viewer that this terrible disease must be stopped before it ruins more lives and more families.  Watching somebody else’s family member fade away into a helpless brain-numbed state is bad enough, but knowing that it may soon hit even closer to home makes The Alzheimer’s Project’s call to arms even more stirring.

For all those Singularity Hub readers out there who want to live forever, Alzheimer’s disease should be very high on the radar.  Humanity looks to be well on the way to establishing a cure for cancer, heart disease and several other afflictions within our lifetimes, but for happy living well past a century the Alzheimer’s riddle must be solved.

The Alzheimer’s Project

The Alzheimer’s Project is made by HBO, the National Institute on Aging and the National Institutes of Health in association with the Alzheimer’s Association, Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, and the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Alzheimer’s Initiative.  Forty-five scientists and doctors were interviewed for the program, creating a nearly complete compendium of knowledge from which the film’s producers could draw.  The collection of films document the struggles of families that are afflicted by the disease as well as the scientific approach to finding a cure and understanding how it affects the brain.

Alzheimer's Patients
Alzheimer's Disease: Longevity's Worst Enemy

The project takes a deep look inside the lives of patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s.  The filmmakers bring to life the fear and anxiety that the elderly feel as they watch themselves slip down into the clutches of the disease.  The psychological tests that doctors use are as simple as remembering three words or drawing the face of a clock, but there is a profound heartbreak at the instant where one realizes that this patient can no longer do either of those tasks.  One plays along at home, much like avid Jeopardy watchers, trying to make sure that their marbles are still intact.

Yes, there is a slight omnipresence of fear coursing through the documentary but it is far from directing the viewers to buy duct tape and bottled water whilst they hold out in their basement and wait for Armageddon.  The candid look at the science behind the disease is welcome in a world of biases and pandering.  The documentary remains hopeful yet does not make any promises for the future.  It documents science at its best, where doctors and researchers are faced with a monumental problem and they have been able to learn so much about it that it may soon be time to find a solution.

There are no words to describe the pain that is shown on each of the faces in the documentary.  From the aging law professor who has watched himself slip from the 90th percentile IQ down through the seventies and even lower to the daughter who candidly admits that her mother is not the same lady that she knew growing up, but a shell of her former self.  These stories are chronicled in the documentary as well as those of scientific endeavor and really deserve to be heard.  Visit the documentary web site and stream it instantly to your computer.

The Disease

So what is this famously hideous disease, but more importantly, how can it be avoided or even cured? It all started over a century ago when Alois Alzheimer discovered what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease by experimenting with a novel way of staining cells.  Alzheimer noted that there were pockets of discolored stuff in the brains of those who suffered from dementia.  For many years, doctors did not think much of his work but, about 25 years ago, doctors slowly began to realize that the memory loss in many old folks was more than just senile dementia and the study of Alzheimer’s disease really began to pick up pace.

The reason why it has taken so long to recognize Alzheimer’s at a threat, no less start on a cure, is that there are many different issues at play that create a perfect storm of forgetfulness.  There is no particular gene that is thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s and doctors estimate that 1 in 10 people without a family history will develop the disease while a family history ups the odds to 1 in 5.  In the effort to stop this disease, the first step was to figure out the cause.

The stuff that Alois Alzheimer noticed was actually Beta Amyloid plaque, which is a protein deposit that clumps up and degenerates synapses and nerve endings in the brain.  Also found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients are Tau Tangles: yet more conglomerations of proteins that should not be simply sitting in the brain.  Doctors are still trying to piece together exactly what causes these Tau Tangles and Beta Amyloid plaques to form within the brain but they do know that these buildups cause synapses to no longer transmit information, destroying the nerve cells within the brain.

In their normal functions, neither Tau nor Beta Amyloid is dangerous.  But when the normal Tau structures fall apart, the proteins clump together to form tangles.  Likewise, when there is either an overproduction of Beta Amyloid or a slow down in its removal from the brain, deposits could form.  The presence of these unwanted disturbances in the brain are what doctors and scientists have been using as the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease in patients, not only relying on memory tests and observation.  These warning signs allow doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease years before its onset, allowing patients time to prepare for the arduous, and for now unstoppable, descent into mindlessness.

The Dark Spots in the Brain Indicate Alzheimer's Disease

One of the most potent methods for doctors to be able to tell what is going on with a patient’s brain chemistry is by sampling the fluid within the spine.  Although the procedure is remarkably painful, spinal fluid travels along the entire spinal column and into the brain, making the chemistry within the brain a bit more accessible.  The level of Beta Amyloid within the spinal fluid can indicate whether or not the body is clearing it out of the brain and into the liver and kidneys for disposal at a fast enough pace.

Another less excruciating method for determining the presence of Alzheimer’s has been developed in 2004 with the coupling of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and a new radioactive dye called Pittsburgh Compound B.  Just as the original experiments of Alois Alzheimer used a dye to highlight the protein buildups, doctors can now do the same thing but without having to remove the patient’s brain.  The dye is injected into the bloodstream and allows the MRI images to show exactly where the protein deposits are located.  As the deposits have grown, doctors have been able to correlate a reduced memory function within the patients.

The Cure

Although it is now easier to diagnose earlier, there has yet to be a universal cure for Alzheimer’s.  Physicians, however, have begun to draw correlations between many different factors for Alzheimer’s risk, with the biggest ones being inflammation and diet.  It was noted that patients who were on medication for the treatment of cholesterol problems had a significantly lower chance of developing the disease.  Doctors propose that the anti-inflammatory nature of the cholesterol fighting drugs caused there to be less pressure in the arteries, allowing for a more efficient removal of Beta Amyloid as well as less inflammation in and around the brain.

The roles of diet and exercise also have been extensively studied, showing that the creation of Beta Amyloid correlates directly with the amount of insulin in the body.  As a low sugar, low fat diet and daily exercise prevent prolonged exposure of insulin to the body, doctors are certain that a healthy lifestyle will help to avoid the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  As of now, those are the methods for fighting the disease before its onset.  Unlike other Singularity Hub stories, there is no gene therapy or any sort of stem cell operation that has been riskily conducted with great success.  This disease remains a dangerous, unavoidable and unpleasant gift from mother nature to look forward to in old age.

The research indicates that a cure may one day be found, that there may eventually be a way to stop if not reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  It is for the foreseeable future, however, that sons and daughters must continue to watch their parents regress through life, unlearning all that they have ever known and slipping into mindlessness one dying synapse at a time.  For many families, when scientists do come out with a novel method of stopping Alzheimer’s, it will simply be too late to avoid the suffering.  To witness the firsthand tragedy of those who are afflicted with the disease as well as the courageous battle of those who fight it, we urge you to check out HBO’s Alzheimer’s Project.

Andrew Kessel
Andrew Kessel
Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.
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