Searching For Memories

A little bit of hope on a lovely spring day

A little bit of hope on a lovely spring day

Not being able to retrieve memories is one of the many cruel symptoms of dementia.  I have written a short memoir about the poignant moment when my mum, in the early stages of the condition, told me that she’d cried herself to sleep the night before because she couldn’t remember her life.

The notion of a scientific breakthrough to provide treatments enabling those with Alzheimer’s disease (by far the most common form of dementia) to rediscover their lost memories is a powerful one.   Now a new study has done just that – in mice.  Because I don’t like articles that give false hope I’m going to say, right here at the top of the story, that four out of five breakthroughs that show promise in studies with mice fail when they are tested on people.

And yet the accounts I’ve heard and read of this latest study are interesting enough to warrant a blog, so here it is.  A little bit of hope for a spring day.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, which you can listen to here, the study’s supervisor, Professor Susumu Tonegawa of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described how, working with mice who had been specially bred to have the early stages of Alzheimer’s, his team discovered that the mice had not lost the ability to make memory, but the ability to retrieve stored memory.  “Using technology called optogenetics basically we cured this impairment in the mice,” he said.  (Optogentics is, put very unscientifically, the use of light to control cells in living tissue).

It was this aspect – that the team were able to “tease out the different types of memory deficit that one can see in Alzheimer’s disease” – that Dr Simon Ridley, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, found so “interesting and exciting”; though he warned on the same Today programme that the study was of the earliest changes in the disease.  In later stages, when someone has suffered significant nerve cell loss and symptoms have become more apparent, the reversal is probably less likely.

As he outlined a possible early stage case study where the breakthrough information might apply – his language laced with caution and caveats – he provided as good an explanation of the disease itself, and of its difference from the normal effects of ageing, as I’ve heard in some time.

It’s worth quoting in full.  “What we believe happens –we still don’t know all the details – is that in Alzheimer’s disease, certain proteins start to build up, one of which is amyloid.  Over time, amyloid builds up, the connections between the nerve cells – which are crucial for normal brain and neuronal function – become irreversibly damaged and the brain cells die.  Other things happen: the brain develops a phenomenon called neuro-inflammation in which inflammatory cells are activated.  There’s a vicious circle of damage that ultimately results in a person dying – over two decades perhaps”.

An important part of Dr Ridley’s explanation is that the damage and ultimate death of the brain cells can result in the individual dying.  Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, ultimately results in dying.   According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2014 the leading cause of death in women in England and Wales was dementia; it was the third most common form of death for males.  So many people I talk to (outside the knowledgeable “dementia community” of those with a personal or professional connection to the condition) are unaware of this.

And as if to underscore this, Dr Ridley stated in no uncertain terms that age-related memory decline, which doesn’t impact on people in a significant way, was quite different – “ a different beast” as he graphically put it – from Alzheimer’s disease.  It is so good for an authority to state this categorically on prime time radio.

Overall, I’d say Dr Ridley’s reaction to the news of a breakthrough in memory retrieval was cautious excitement.  He was quite clear that the “contrived but very clever system of optogenetics” used by Professor Tonegawa’s team was “very, very unlikely to ever be useful in humans.  But he was optimistic that in the long-term such nerve damage in humans could be reversed – through “different routes”.

“What one is looking at,” he said, “is strategies to understand and hopefully repair the damaged connections in the early stages before it is too late”.

I respect the research director’s caution.  I applaud the extraordinary scientific breakthrough of the team led by Nobel prize winner Professor Tonegawa, a man the Times lauded as “a master of memory” in its leader column.  And I agree with the leader writer who concluded, “We can only wait and hope.  In the meantime, the researchers should be congratulated on another remarkable display of the power of fundamental science to answer questions the rest of the world had never thought to ask”.  I am grateful that this time the question they sought to answer was on a subject so close to my heart.

5 Responses to Searching For Memories

  1. Sharon connolly 18th March 2016 at 12:05 am #

    Wow thanks so much for sharing. I have read about the light therapy. Was very interesting to see a picture of the brain cognitive pathways light up in a scan. Showed just how delicate these pathways are in our brains. What i have found interesting is the impact of concousion damage to these pathways.

    • Pippa Kelly 18th March 2016 at 8:00 am #

      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment Sharon. Yes, it is all very interesting and exciting. Slowly, slowly, hopefully we are edging closer to some sort of cure.

  2. Christine Morgan 18th March 2016 at 8:52 am #

    There is so much that, as yet, we don’t know about the brain and this research sounds fascinating and hopeful. I wonder if the researchers talk to carers or patients when they are considering which parts of research to follow?

    The BMJ through the patient editor now offers the opportunity to have patients review research papers alongside specialist peer reviewers to get their unique perspective. I have completed one of these so far and it made me think that a discussion before the research started might have focussed more directly on a particular aspect that had more potential impact for patients and the researchers i.e. what matters to people most.

    Just speculating- but it made me think in your blog about what you know of the progression of dementia as a carer who reported what your mum experienced and how that knowledge must be valuable to researchers?

  3. Pippa Kelly 18th March 2016 at 10:37 am #

    This is very interesting Christine. Is there an opportunity to make your views known to the BMJ?

  4. Gill 18th March 2016 at 11:15 am #

    Thank you for posting this, it is really interesting. There are so many studies around, but each one is important for us who are living with Dementia in the very very early stages. I tried to get on one exciting study only to be told my memory is not quite impaired enough yet. The study is exciting because it is already having remarkable effects and not getting on it means I still have nothing to delay what is happening in my brain however slow it is.

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