The Man Who Wasn’t There: What Exactly Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
on April 19th, 2016 in Mind, Research | No Comments
No doubt you’ve heard of Alzheimer’s Disease. It causes memory loss and slowly destroys the brain. There have been vast leaps forward in the prevention and treatment of this disease recently as we begin to understand it more. There have also been new, fascinating breakthroughs in understanding exactly how it really affects the brain and all aspects of the mind.
In The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self, author Anil Ananthaswamy explores how different conditions, from Alzheimer’s to out-of-body experiences, affect the concept of the Self. That is, if the concept of the “Self” even exists. Through investigations of different parts of the mind and ideas like the human narrative, Ananthaswamy reveals what Alzheimer’s actually is and how it affects our minds.
Symptoms, Physical and Neurological
Alzheimer’s disease was first classified in 1906, named after psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, the German doctor who discovered it. He had a long-term patient named Auguste. She had severe memory loss and suffered from progressive cognitive impairment, hallucinations, delusions and other symptoms we now often associate with the disease. However, Alzheimer did not just stop his diagnoses on the surface level. He delved deep into Auguste’s mind — literally — to fully understand what was causing the disease.
Alzheimer had slivers of Auguste’s brain sent to his lab. There, he examined them, and what he found was startling. The cells of her cerebral cortex showed abnormalities not found in healthy brains. While Alzheimer did his best to describe these strange cells, we now use the terms neurofibrillary tangles and plaques of beta-amyloid protein. In other words, neurons begin to degrade, and a strange protein builds up around the area, further blocking messages between brain cells. As both these issues progress, Alzheimer’s disease takes hold.
The Human Narrative
One of the tell-tale signs of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. Patients tend to lose a part of their short-term and/or long-term memories. It is these moments in their life they no longer remember that form their life’s narrative. This is their story, the tale of how they became the person they are now. And, in consequence, this is what defines the Self. As some describe it, it’s like “somebody you grew up with disappears before your eyes.” And as that narrative is eroded by lost memories, it’s as if those afflicted are “drifting towards the threshold of unbeing.”
But it’s not just memory that is affected by this horrific disease. As different parts of the brain begin to deteriorate, your personality — in some ways, the center of the Self — also crumbles. One patient, a once brilliant and kind-hearted man, began suffering extreme mood swings. A small argument with his wife would send him storming from the house, slamming doors as he went. He would constantly write notes riddled with obscenities, aimed at his wife.
Perhaps the most telling change was the fear the patient presented. He read books regarding assisted suicide, and often asked his wife to make sure he never got to the point of needing adult diapers or to be in a nursing home. As his wife puts it, his brilliance was a double-edged sword. He was losing the thing he valued the most: his brain, his intelligence. In essence, Alzheimer’s was stripping him of who he was.
There is Hope
There are countless stories out there similar to this that reveal just how devastating it is for a person to lose what it is that makes them uniquely themselves. Many of these stories, in addition to glimpses into many different diseases and disorders, are beautifully articulated in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book. However, these stories of Alzheimer’s patients may soon be confined to medical history books, alongside the Spanish flu and smallpox. Modern medicine is on the war path toward achieving a goal once thought impossible: eliminating Alzheimer’s.
One of the most significant recent breakthroughs involves early detection. Scientists are working toward a way to detect those protein plaque buildups very early on and, in doing so, preventing Alzheimer’s from every developing. There are many different methods being tested right now, from blood draws to brain scans. But scientists believe if they can catch these symptoms before they start affecting the brain, they can provide treatment to keep the disease at bay.
There are many different ways the plaque could be combatted. One such way is to bolster the immune system, allowing it to more efficiently fight against beta-amyloid protein from ever clumping. Another way is to prevent the plaque from affecting the brain, even if it does develop. This is done by blocking interaction with another kind of protein called Fyn. When these two proteins work together, the brain begins to deteriorate.
Scientists are also working toward preventing neurofibrillary tangles. We have learned that such tangles are caused by a “malfunction” of the Tau protein. Tau is responsible for giving neurons their shape and structure. There is an abnormal kind of Tau that, when it collapses, twists into tangles. As they do so, they slowly destroy structures within the neuron, called microtubules, and eventually destroy the cell itself. Researchers are developing drugs that attack this abnormal Tau to allow the neuron to keep its shape.
You can learn much more about all the ways researchers are working toward defeating this disease for good at the Alzheimer’s Association website. The most important thing you can do if a loved one is diagnosed is to simply support them. Make sure they know you care, and that they are not alone in this fight. Show them love, patience, and understanding. Show them that they are still connected with you, the family, and the world. Together, you may be able to preserve those special moments and the unique personality that makes them uniquely themselves.