David Suzuki’s Journey to Understand the Science of Alzheimer’s

untangling_1“Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading killer disease in North America and the only one that can’t be stopped, slowed or treated. We don’t even know what causes it.”
David Suzuki

David Suzuki voices the above revelations at the onset of an episode of The Nature of Things entitled Untangling Alzheimer’s. Suzuki is driven by his own personal experiences to uncover the latest scientific findings in Alzheimer’s research.

What it Feels Like to Have Dementia

His journey begins with dementia expert P.K. Beville, founder of Second Wind Dreams and the Virtual Dementia Tour. The Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT) mimics some of the physical aspects of dementia.

After donning shoe inserts, a glove, glasses and headphones as part of the VDT experience, Suzuki is asked to perform basic housekeeping tasks. Afterwards, he appears emotional and visibly shaken by the experience of having gained a better understanding of the physical and mental challenges facing dementia patients.

The Quest for an Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease

The next stop on his journey is with Dr. Howard Chertkow, director of the McGill Memory Clinic at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Chertkow and his team are working on new imaging techniques that may revolutionize the quest for an early diagnosis of Alzhiemer’s disease (AD).

Suzuki points out that, “While we are starting to see the disease in its earlier stages …the great hope today is to find treatments to be used when these very first signs appear. Like catching a killer before they commit the crime. And there is not a moment to lose. Within a generation the number of Canadians with dementia will more than double. The pressure to find a treatment has never been greater.”

Searching for a ‘fast, easy and cheap’ diagnostic tool for early detection Suzuki visits Dr. Lee E. Goldstein at the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center. The Boston University website explains that Dr. Goldstein and his colleagues are working on, “a laser-based diagnostic technology that will hopefully detect Alzheimer’s disease years before the first symptoms emerge”.  The diagnostic tool records an image of Suzuki’s eye lens with the push of a button. The image is studied for signs of the amyloids found in the brains of individuals with AD.

Hope for a Cure

 Along the journey Suzuki describes the progression of AD as “swift and usually steep”. He explains that on rare occasions there are examples of treatments that seem to work.

To illustrate, Suzuki describes the experience of an individual diagnosed with AD who volunteered for a radical new treatment. The procedure involved tiny electrodes being implanted in the patient’s head to stimulate the circuits in the brain that control memory. In response to repeated stimulation, the patient’s hippocampus (the area of the brain that is responsible for memory) actually grew. Dr. Andres Lozano of the University of Toronto believes deep brain stimulation may be doing more than treating the symptoms of AD; it may be reversing the damage.

New Theories on the Causes and Triggers of Alzheimer’s

 As the journey progresses it becomes clear that the ideal scientific discovery would be finding the causes of AD.

Dr. Suzanne DeLaMonte, Professor of Neurosurgery, Brown University in Rhode Island came upon a unique discovery while studying insulin and the brain. Blocking the insulin in the brain of test rats resulted in dementia-like behavior. Suzuki explains that, “When Dr. DeLaMonte examined the rat’s brain she found them to be riddled with plaques and tangled neurons, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease”. Dr. DeLaMonte is now convinced that the cause of Alzheimer’s is a problem with insulin she has labeled type 3 diabetes.

Dr. Suzanne Craft, Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina is studying insulin treatments for individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Craft’s first insulin trial study showed individuals who received the insulin faired better on their cognitive tests and even the caregivers noticed an improvement.

At the end of David Suzuki’s journey he concludes that, “Without a treatment all we really have to rely on is empathy and compassion”.

Special thanks to our research partner, Recreational Respite for bringing the episode ‘Untangling Alzheimer’s Disease with David Suzuki’ to our attention through their awareness blog.

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