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A futuristic fix for Alzheimer's disease?

November 21, 2011 |  2:46 pm

What if Alzheimer's isn't curable? What if scientists are wasting their time trying to discover the root of the problem, rather than developing ways to treat patients so that they might live with the disease with some dignity?  The December issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease raises these questions with a new study that says more attention should be focused on extending the life of neurons. In other words, prevention and treatment rather than an all-out cure.

The Times' editorial board weighed in on the study's findings in Monday's Opinion pages, suggesting researchers keep an open mind on all fronts:

[Dr. Ming Chen at the University of South Florida ], the new study's lead author, says that for years Alzheimer's researchers have been driven by fear of the societal devastation that will be wrought by increasing numbers of dementia sufferers, and that it has led scientists down a path for a cure that doesn't exist. But fear is a powerful and often a rational motivator. It's fine to reexamine priorities. The last thing we want is for researchers to be distracted by the debate or to close off options that let them dare to pursue either a cure or a preventive strategy.

Indeed, when it comes to science, some lament a culture that fosters close-mindedness. On a recent episode  of "This American Life," for instance, cancer researcher Jonathan Brody complained that researchers spend too much time refining the same concepts rather than taking big steps forward.  He likens it to a screenwriter in Hollywood who sells out to survive. He says:

You know, I do think it's much like being in Hollywood. You might go out to Hollywood thinking that you'll be the next Kafka. And you end up writing, you know, the worst sitcom in the world, right, because you want to survive. So what happens in this country when the same thing happens with science?

For Brody, it's the frustration that only familiar concepts get funding that compelled him to team up with a music teacher to discover whether soundwaves could kill cancer cells.

So, is there a bold, out-of-the-box idea for Alzheimer's? Theodore W. Berger, a biomedical engineer at USC, might just be onto something. On a recent episode of another fantastic radio program, "Studio 360," Berger talks seriously about creating an artificial hippocampus  for people suffering from severe memory loss.


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Photo:  Patient brain scans are shown at the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Credit:  Katja Heinemann / HBO

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