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By Kitty Testa
If you’ve never dealt with a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, you probably will—or maybe not.
Watching a person with advancing dementia is a heartbreaking experience in which the person you know seems to disappear, bit by bit. For me, it was my mother. At first she was just forgetful—expected with advancing age. Then she, a writer of poetry, could no longer remember words. She lost the ability to recall recent conversations. All the while she smiled pleasantly and acted as if nothing were wrong, but she knew. I would later discover slips of paper in her bedroom reminding her of who people are, where to find everyday items, and what things she needed to do. At one point she requested her daughters to meet her for lunch. But rather than this being a social outing, her purpose was to confide in us that she was slipping away, and she wanted to tell me and my sisters all how much she loved us before that happened.
The worst moment for me was when I realized that she had not called me by name in a long, long time, and I realized I would never hear her speak my name again. I took her to a wedding shower for my brother and his fiancé, and she leaned over to me and asked, “Which one is she marrying?” She opened her wallet and showed me a list of all of her thirteen children, in age order. It was tattered around the edges. She had been carrying it around for years.
“Jimmy,” I said. But there was no Jimmy on her list, only a “James.” That confused her, so I pointed to the name below mine on her list.
“My brain is messy,” she said.
According to Australian researchers at the Queensland Brain Insitute, my mother was right. Her brain was messy.
If a person has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s usually the result of a build-up of two types of lesions – amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques sit between the neurons and end up as dense clusters of beta-amyloid molecules, a sticky type of protein that clumps together and forms plaques.
Neurofibrillary tangles are found inside the neurons of the brain, and they’re caused by defective tau proteins that clump up into a thick, insoluble mass. This causes tiny filaments called microtubules to get all twisted, which disrupts the transportation of essential materials such as nutrients and organelles along them, just like when you twist up the vacuum cleaner tube.
Two years ago, these researchers discovered that by using a particular type of ultrasound, they could clean up a messy brain by beaming sound waves into the brain tissue. Microglial cells serve as waste-removal cells in the brain, and when activated by super-fast oscillating sound waves, they go to work clearing away the sticky proteins that cause the dementia familiar in Alzheimer’s patients. Their research showed that they were able to fully restore memory function in mice 75% of the time.
Since 2015, the researchers at QBI have been developing and testing the ultrasound devices to administer the treatment, and they hope to begin human trials this year. They are hoping that the treatment will be available to the public within the next five years.
It is not believed that Alzheimer’s is largely hereditary, but a gene on chromosome 19 may make a person more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s without actually causing the disease. Considering our aging population, and given that one-in-ten people over the age of 65 is affected by Alzheimer’s disease, to have an effective cure on the horizon represents hope to millions.
QBI would need to get approval from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (much like the US FDA) to move forward with trials, and is currently seeking financing and/or a commercial partner to fund further research. While the market potential for the treatment should grow considerably in the coming years, it will compete directly with pharmaceutical treatments. It will be interesting to see where the capital flows. Whereas eradicating a disease is socially more desirable, managing chronic diseases is inevitably more profitable.
Of course, no one wants to fall prey to Alzheimer’s. No one wants to watch a loved one struggle with the dementia and their own loss as that loved one disappears.
Might I suggest a Kickstarter campaign?