A Brighter Future of Dementia in America
Social media is a great thing, especially when you are lucky enough to re unite with someone from your past. Last week I had a long lost friend reach out to me on facebook. I was so excited to hear from her, getting caught up on the last 7 odd years, when she told me her dad was suffering from advanced dementia and how her mom was now his primary caretaker. Of course this was heartbreaking news. I had met her parents several times in the past and remember how happy and energetic they were, loving their retired life and looking to the future. I am sure if you or someone you know has experienced this painful diagnosis you will defiantly be interested in the blog post I have for you today… hope that someday there will be advanced treatments to stop or at least slow down the loss of memory.
In the classic science fiction story “Flowers for Algernon,” scientists subject a laboratory mouse to experimental surgery that dramatically increases the rodent’s native intelligence. The touching story centers on a fellow test subject—a human—who briefly, heartbreakingly experiences the dizzying heights of extreme human cognition before tragically descending back into the murky depths of his original state of mental retardation.
The award-winning story was made into an award-winning film. It continues to be taught in schools around the world. “Algernon” resonates with audiences not just because of its intriguing plot, but also because of its examination of human intelligence, memory, learning, and compassion. It’s also serves as a metaphor for the human condition.
We come into this world helpless and utterly ignorant. We learn, grow, acquire knowledge and skills, thrill to the joys of curiosity, experience love and life, and then often face a long decline as advanced age seems to erase those experiences from our minds. Call it cognitive decline; dementia; Alzheimer’s disease. It doesn’t happen to everyone. But when it does, it can be heartbreaking, both for the person experiencing it, and for his or her loved one’s—the people who must stand by helplessly and watch as memory, recognition, and reasoning slip away.
It’s especially intriguing, then, that scientists at the University of Leeds, England, recently published the results of their experiments on mice. Like our fictional hero lab mouse, Algernon, researchers were able to transform ordinary, real-world lab mice into highly intelligent, fearless creatures through an experimental procedure. In the story, the transformation involves surgery. In real life, investigators altered a gene, which in turn inhibited an enzyme, which had the effect of raising the animals’ intelligence, while lowering their natural anxiety.
The enzyme, called phosphodiesterase-4B, is now believed to represent a possible target for future treatments to curtail human cognitive decline. It might even hold one of the keys to reversing Alzheimer’s disease. Lead researcher, Dr Steve Clapcote, said: "Cognitive impairments are currently poorly treated, so I'm excited that our work using mice has identified phosphodiesterase-4B as a promising target for potential new treatments.”
Of course, the fictional procedure that transformed Algernon from an ordinary mouse to a genius—and back again—was ultimately a failure. Neither he, nor his human co-subject, were supposed to revert to their former state of limited intelligence.
To be sure, this real-life advance may never pan out in the real world. But it’s an intriguing glimpse into a possible new avenue for research that may one day lead to effective treatments for one of the cruelest diseases of all: the loss of one’s cognition. "There is currently a lack of effective treatments for dementia and understanding the effect of genes can be a key early step on the road to developing new drugs. With so many people affected by dementia, it is important that there is research into a wide array of treatment approaches to have the best chance of helping people sooner,” said Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer's Research UK.
Alexander McGirr, Tatiana V Lipina, Ho-Suk Mun, John Georgiou, Ahmed H Al-Amri, Enoch Ng, Dongxu Zhai, Christina Elliott, Ryan T Cameron, Jonathan GL Mullins, Fang Liu, George S Baillie, Steven J Clapcote, John C Roder. Specific Inhibition of Phosphodiesterase-4B Results in Anxiolysis and Facilitates Memory Acquisition. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/npp.2015.240