‘Heady’ science

My step-dad has Dementia with Lewy bodies. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s the second most common type of what may be this century’s most rapidly growing threat to adults’ health — dementia. This year, about 23, 000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer; 1 in 29 of them will  die. More than 10 times that number of Canadians have dementia, and it will kill them all. It was reported in the Globe and Mail (2010) that in 17 years  the number of dementia sufferers worldwide is expected to double. In Canada the prediction is that number will more than double in just 8 years. If that’s not alarming enough, what used to be thought of as a disease of the very old is now hitting people in their 60s.


(my step-dad in Australia)

My step-dad’s brain can no longer make meaning out of sensory input or lose memories. Unless subdued by drugs, he’s beset by hallucinations and delusions, sometimes coupled with uncontrollable frustration and anger. The Lewy bodies — tiny, pernicious lumps of protein forming in the neurons of his brain — act like a clog plugging a drain.

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They inhibit the flow of neurotransmitters which normally create the electro-chamical signals associated with information processing and relaying of data.  LBD victims don’t tolerate drugs very well, so the prognosis for my step-dad is that the symptoms will worsen until the Lewy bodies finally invade the part of his brain that governs the autonomic nervous system and he reaches what he called, in the months while he could still process what was happening to him, ‘the final solution’.

If dementia were a disease like bird flu it would be considered a pandemic — perhaps one with a slow fuse because deaths come slowly after as much as a decade or more of suffering depending on the age of onset — but one that’s equally relentless and horribly costly in every awful way you can imagine. That’s why the work of neuroscientists such as the speakers who are coming to BDL 2013 this summer is so important. Now that they have evidence that neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and synaptogenesis are lifelong processes, they are working on interventions that will strengthen existing and grow new neural architecture. Their hope is that the onset of dementia can be delayed and even prevented. With new technology these scientists no longer have to make guesses about the effectiveness of their programs, they can see real results in real time.

Here, then. to introduce you to these revolutionary findings is a 4 part, 2008 documentary by Canada’s David Suzuki  — The Brain that Changes Itself — based on the book by Dr. Norman Doidge.

In the weeks that come, I’ll introduce you to some of the speakers who you’ll hear at BDL13 and to others I’ve encountered on my own journey to learn more about cognitive sciences. I’ll also tell you more about my step-dad and our experiences together during the 6 months I spent with him in Australia earlier this year. My writing in this blog is dedicated to him.