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The 5000-Mile View of Alzheimer’s Disease


The World Isn’t Flat

If only we were as intuitive as the ancient Greeks.  It is much easier to believe that the earth is round now that we can view it from space.  Distance offers objectivity and a clearer perception of the big picture.

I hear conversations about Alzheimer’s disease that are ripe with concern over the growing epidemic that is set to be the most devastating and expensive disease of my generation. The global community is uniting to face this crisis.  Pharmaceutical intervention- our best shot at halting the spread- is aimed at disrupting degenerative processes that may or may not be normal for our species.  Evolutionarily speaking, this approach seems as efficacious as lopping the tail off a lizard.

Some people believe the incidence of Alzheimer’s is increasing.  Others believe that we’ve just renamed a longstanding condition of human aging that is more common now that more aged people roam the earth.  No one disputes that it is a tragic demise, and caring for the afflicted is costly and exhausting.  Yet in the medical community, no one can agree on what it is:  Alzheimer’s is a disease.  Alzheimer’s is not a disease.  We must prevent it.  We must diagnose it.  We must treat it.  We must cure it.

Or we must expect it.

The tendency in all conversations about Alzheimer’s is to put the pin on the map of the modern human brain and label Alzheimer’s as a final destination.  We end the continuum of brain evolution in the present moment, look back over decades of experience with this disease, and wonder what has gone wrong.

But let’s take a rocket ship to the next orbit and look down at Alzheimer’s from an evolutionary perspective.  Perhaps a macroview will provide some odd source of comfort, or at least an appreciation for the dichotomy of our fragile yet resilient brains.

Picture the timeline of human existence:

Look to the left and you’ll see Early Man with his sloped forehead and wide jaw.  His language consisted of grunts and cries.  His appendix housed a built-in apothecary, so he could fight bacterial infections born from eating raw meat and vegetables.  He ran marathons for survival, without the promise of a shiny gold medal and an afternoon in the beer garden.   His lifespan was short.  His circumstances remained unchanged for thousands of years.  Yet slowly, he evolved.

Look straight down in front of you.   There you are.  You who developed from the chaotic debris of countless revolutions.  You are the most intelligent, articulate, multilingual species on the planet.  You are a highly complex primate who can learn, and reason, and plan.  Your brain has developed a frontal lobe and hippocampus capable of storing, analyzing, and filtering just the right amount of information.  You have a huge capacity to associate ideas and act on your own volition.  You can access both old and new information, manipulate it, combine it with other data, and produce artificial intelligence and complex machinery.  You are so brilliant that you can change your circumstances, your environment, your food source, and your mode of transportation.  You appreciate the artistic and the abstract.  You, Modern Day Human, are the bomb.

Of course, your surreptitious evolution has come at a price.  Your primitive ancestors did not have to adapt to such rapidly changing circumstances.  Your new-fangled brain lobes, although nimble and efficient, aren’t quite as sturdy as your older brain parts.  Perhaps some “genome lag” is at play.  Whatever the cause, it is clear that your modern day brain is vulnerable to developmental delays, mutations, and degeneration.  Ironically, you have the power to change the world faster than you can adapt to it.

Are you enjoying the view from this vantage point?  It can be a little unsettling.  But try to appreciate how much our species has accomplished over the last several centuries.  Look at how quickly we are developing new technology.  Disruptive innovation, genetically modified organics, global warming, cultural homogenization… in terms of environmental stability, there are no fixed variables.  With the clarity offered from this perspective, it is obvious our brains can’t keep pace.

Back to the timeline:

Look to the right.  The timeline disappears into the mist, and what lies ahead is simply unknown.  Your guess is as good as mine.

An absurd little rant:

A future without Alzheimer’s?

In the seedy back rooms of my imagination, there sits a short, pudgy robot-man with ginormous thumbs, protruding pancreas, and red lights blinking from sunken eye sockets.  Inside his skull, the eight-pound sponge of yesteryear is now rigid and metallic.   There is no use for organic brain tissue to perform memory, reasoning, and complex emotions as we had long ago designed computers to replace those redundant features.  The executive level functions we once regarded as “highly evolved” just kept right on evolving.  Those delicate brain centers were a necessary step along the continuum, but were eventually replaced by less volatile hardware.

But don’t worry.  Singularity-Man will be bipedal.  Everybody knows robots can’t walk.

The point of this absurdity is to illustrate the obvious: we are still evolving.  Personally, I need this perspective to accept my place in human history.  I am not likely to die from consumption, or from childbirth, or from a guilty verdict at a witch trial.  But I might die from Alzheimer’s.  And someday, generations from now, my offspring will look back on my death and wonder how our scientific community could miss what was right under its vestigial proboscis.

Rather than trying to stop inflammatory processes and eliminate sticky substances associated with Alzheimer’s brains, maybe we should try to adapt to them.  Maybe the kid who is eating two pounds of sugar a day is developing an insulin turbo pump, and his cardiovascular system is being challenged to evolve into a system that is not dependent on exercise (contrived dinosaur dodging) for maintenance.  Perhaps avoiding GMO’s, environmental toxins, and work-related stress is counterproductive, as the bloodline that can weather those challenges will propagate.

As a vegetarian, gluten-free runner who tries to leave a small carbon footprint on this earth, I am trying desperately to avoid death by chronic disease.  But I am also trying to find the slant.  Maybe my brain has not yet evolved enough to see the forest for the trees.  But someday we will know the truth.

The earth is round, lizard tails grow back, and Alzheimer’s…




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