Saturday, October 15, 2011

An all-out assault on Alzheimer's: A 'brainstormy' battle plan

    In several upcoming posts, Elderly Girl will offer a detailed proposal for waging war on Alzheimer's disease, since it seems that no one who is actually qualified to take charge has done so. We need one of those "czars," without the stupid title, who would coordinate everything. Would "Brainiac" work?
    This needs to be a mass assault, a top national priority (like the moon landing), using a multi-pronged approach. It needs to be a bit crazy and loose and collaborative and all brainstormy, making use of crowdsourcing, which we have seen to be so effective at solving so many other, very diverse, problems. Let's get as many intellects -- and as many disciplines -- involved as we can.

    We're all just sitting around, while precious human beings suffer terribly, waiting for Big Pharma to find a way to make hundreds of billions of dollars off of this mess. They're screwing up -- and why should we let them exploit this tragedy anyway? We can handle it!
    Elderly Girl's blueprint is radical, colorful and in some respects illegal. Too bad! Perhaps much of it is naive as well, but Elderly Girl can't be a renowned expert on everything. One thing she is an expert on, though, is kicking butt. Let's get them in gear, dear friends, especially the geeks and the hippies!

     As we will enumerate in colorful detail in our next post, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of psychoactive substances (most of them banned in the U.S., mainly for hypocritical, puritannical reasons) that are clearly relevant to the various impacts that Alzheimer's has on the brain. We will attempt to mobilize support for their responsible use, in both current treatment and research. If we don't get official support, we will use them anyway (Elderly Girl would happily get herself locked up for this cause, and she would make very good use of her time, probably instigating prison-reform riots). Europe, of course, is way ahead of us in the use of mind-altering substances in a therapeutic context. So are ancient and "primitive" civilizations, as usual.

    In addition to drugs, there are evolving concepts in our understanding of the brain's capacities that suggest truly exciting ways to wage our assault on Alzheimer's. They are out there, in the literature -- buried in academe, slipped into journals that nobody reads, and in PhD theses that get filed away in some campus library -- and have not been assertively perused for their relevance to Alzheimer's. These intellectual manuscripts also imply that we can intervene early in the disease, to mitigate its effects in ways that are currently not even being attempted.
Tell us what you see!
     It's almost as if all these thousands of scientists around the world are totally engrossed in their own little fascination with one gene or one type of neuron, and no one has bothered to read all their papers and say: "We really have something to work with here!"
    Someone needs to stitch it all together. Elderly Girl vowed at a very early age never to become a seamstress. Thimbles are repellent objects that belong in an S&M boutique or whatever, and she has never once succeeded in threading a needle. But everyone else is just sitting around, chewing Nicoretttes and messing with their iPads, so what can she do? She's stitching!

    We need someone who has stepped back from the microscopic, synaptic level and is looking at the whole brain, the whole person and the whole, grisly disease. If you bring it all together (why isn't anyone doing this?) we can infer interventions right now that could alleviate mass-scale suffering.
    Moreover, there are technological tools that range from video games to virtual reality, from fMRI experiments to electrical stimulation, that need to be brought to bear. Old memories can be revived. Lost capacities can be regained, through brain retraining and the cultivation of new neural pathways. We know this to be true, so why do we have millions of Alzheimer's patients sitting alone, in dark rooms, strapped to wheelchairs, and literally rotting?
    Many of the most profound ideas in the field of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness and the phenomenon of memory are relevant to this overwhelming challenge, but there has been no grand outpouring of determination to apply them to Alzheimer's.
    What is the problem?

related content / article continues below:

Operation Alzheimer's: The next civil-rights struggle

Somebody's mother.
     Have you ever sensed that a teensy seed -- the seed of Alzheimer's disease -- has slid covertly into the nurturing broth of your cerebrospinal fluid, and is preparing (maybe tomorrow, maybe in 30 years) to sprout?
A beautiful mind. We will learn how to keep it that way.
    Elderly Girl can feel the Alzheimer's in herself. She has felt it as a vague potentiality for some time. Not that her blinding brilliance, or anything else about her lovable powers, has yet been affected. But she has this intuition -- maybe a subconscious knowledge, maybe a chemical signal -- that the little bastard is there.
     Elderly Girl has been studying the brain since long before you were born. She has no credentials whatsoever. She's never even been to elementary school, much less to an exalted center of advanced learning. She is a proud "autodidact" -- a rather ugly word, don't you agree? -- who has been mastering one discipline after another with no help from anyone, since she was three years old. She has been offered so many honorary degrees -- not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize, as we have already mentioned -- that she has taken her phone off the hook permanently. Just being Elderly Girl is the only honor she has ever desired. Give the others to those who are less blessed, for pete's sake!
    Elderly Girl always knew she wouldn't take Alzheimer's lying down, or lashed to a wheelchair, bleary-eyed and drippy-nosed. She knew she would find a way to make it cool.
    And now that her elderliness is becoming so unbelievably extreme, she is setting things in motion, so that she and the rest of her species will have exaltation rather than degradation during their final years on this tragically dying beast of a Planet.
     Elderly Girl does not believe outer space is the final frontier. 

It's all in your mind.
    Ultimately, we will realize that it is our minds that are everything, and once we unlock them, and open them up, and maybe digitize them or set them to music or combine them all into some immersive medium, it will all become clear. Our brains ARE outer space. It's all in there. It's all out there. It's all one.
    Alzheimer's is a bump in the road. But at least it's forcing us to confront our minds head-on, for the first time, and to give them the priority they deserve, as we attempt to understand this life, and perhaps to enable it to go on forever (for those who aren't getting a bit bored with it already) 
    Stay tuned for Elderly Girl's Magical Mystery Tour to learn the details. 
    In the meantime, imagine this rescue fantasy:
    "I have a dream," Elderly Girl declares.
    It will be the grandest, most sweeping mobilization since the rescue of concentration camp inmates in World War II. It will be a beautiful, powerful statement of human compassion: "This must not stand."
    By "this," she means the cold-hearted warehousing of those with Alzheimer's in quaintly titled "nursing homes." Some nursing! Some homes! 
    In a top-secret mass assault, intricately choreographed by Elderly Girl, the nation's nursing homes across the country will be breached, with exquisite precision and synchronization, and with battering rams, if necessary. 
    It could happen at any moment.

    Thousands of trained volunteers -- led by Elderly Girl's Swat Team brothers, her skateboarding boyfriends, Bruno Mars & the Doo Wops Hooligans, delegates from the national Red Hat Society, representatives from every gay chorale in the country, and the infamous stars of the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise  -- will stealthily enter the rooms of Alzheimer's patients. The first order of business will be to embrace these dear, desolated souls, who probably haven't been hugged in years. "We are here to rescue you," the volunteers will whisper.
    Please sign up for this grand team effort by sending a tweet to Cee Lo Green (@CeeLoGreen). That dude just loves little old ladies, and they love him back. He makes them feel both fragile and totally safe. Ah, that is heaven! Issac Hayes can never be replaced, of course, but Green's a sweetie. 
    Each patient will be wrapped in a soft blanket and carried out to a military-style van. Across the land, motorcades will speed through the darkness, headed for the nearest river.
Elderly Girl thought a barge getaway would be romantic.
     Why rivers? Elderly Girl just really wanted to put people on barges, even though she isn't entirely sure what a barge is, but she wanted the nation's waterways to be filled with freed inmates, floating along in the moonlight, with massive trees rustling on each side, and some nice music playing, like "Finlandia," or "The Bohemian Rhapsody":

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see.....

    Look up, indeed, our beloved, tortured elders! The universe opens its arms to you. We are here to ease you back into yourselves -- whether to real life or to a fantasy.....who cares? Whatever you want. No more lonely teardrops.

No more lonely teardrops. (by Jaliya)
    The barges barge ahead, just as they were born to do, headed for a sparkling realm of rejuvenation. Welcome to "Elderly Girl's Alzheimer's World" -- a chain of magical, nonprofit residential facilities, where the brain goes to play while it's being eaten alive by the most dreaded disease on Earth. 
    Except that, thanks to Elderly Girl, that brain won't be eaten up -- it will stew gently in an array of brilliant therapies that will let the sunshine back in. 
    At each marvelous resort, patients will be bathed in affection and gentle communion in an atmosphere of shimmering beauty. The combined wisdom of ancient and "primitive" drug cultures, as well as contemporary neuroscience -- so irritably stitched together by Elderly Girl into a template of treatment -- will turn shattered souls back into their true selves. 
     Elderly Girl is busy creating the physical and legal infrastructure that will enable her dream to materialize. Judge Judy and I.M. Pei's  insights have been invaluable.
    And when things are in place, the mass liberation of Alzheimer's patients will occur, as her residential wonderlands -- each designed to stimulate a joyous awakening -- open their doors.  

Wouldn't this be a nice little home for those with Alzheimer's?
    We don't yet have the ability to restore them to their pre-Alzheimer's selves. But we will attempt to reverse the damage that has been done by loneliness and neglect, and we will work with the quite substantial parts of their brains that have not yet been occupied by dementia to restore many of their capacities. At the very least, we will give them hugs and kisses, bubble baths and massages.
      Elderly Girl is also supervising the creation of environments in her resorts that will bathe her traumatized patients in light and love: songbirds, the tinkling of chimes high up in the forested atrium, the sound of splashing water and uplifting music, the aroma of great coffee and gourmet buffets. There will be daily bubble baths and massages and cozy robes. 
Who could resist a long, vigorous scrubbing by a darling young man?
     Elderly Girl's patients will be engaged in conversation, no matter how nonsensical. They will have their hair brushed soothingly. We will kiss their cheeks and hold their hands. We will hug them, and we will tuck them in at night, bedtime stories optional. A new era of Free Love.
    We will go to the opera and museums, national parks and rock concerts. We will ride ski gondolas and hot-air balloons. These activities will be offered in both real and virtual formats. We will spend afternoons drinking champagne and playing "Charades." 
    Elderly Girl has a big, crazy, colorful plan. A lot of it will probably fail. But the rest of it is going to really blow some minds, and it will forever change the direction and pace of research on cognitive disorders.

  (may 25, 2013)