A Terrible and Meaningful Loss
The slow peeling away of the self caused by Alzheimer's opens a window on what it means to be human.
BY: Interview by Elizabeth Sams
In a strange way I think if we are lucky enough to beat Alzheimer's in the next handful of years, we're still going to want to make some effort to remember what it was. I think it's been a part of thousands of years of history. If we could take all the Alzheimer's literature and just burn it, and say let's forget it ever existed, I think we would lose something.
Nancy Reagan has become an outspoken advocate for stem cell research as a possible route to treatment for people with Alzheimer's. What kinds of things do scientists hope for in that direction?
As I understand it, and I'm not a scientist, the fruits of stem cell research are more long term than short term. There's no doubt that using stem cells to understand the brain and to be able to recreate sections of the brain that have been damaged holds a lot of promise in the long term.
The most important point to be made about stem cell research is not that it wouldn't be great, but it's a little misleading to talk about it as much as we have. Stem cell research is not going to cure Alzheimer's disease in the short run. There are all sorts of promising leads that we have with Alzheimer's disease in the short run. We could actually cure this thing in the next 5 or 10 years, potentially. But it's not going to come from stem cells.
I'm not criticizing Nancy Reagan. I think, you have to get involved with what you're passionate about and she's passionate about stem cells. But if you really wanted to put your money and your attention towards curing this disease as fast as possible, in my judgment, you would not be putting the vast majority of that effort toward stem cell. [It would go toward running many more drug trials simultaneously.] The Alzheimer's community knows where to spend the money. The NIH knows where to direct the research. What we need to do is increase that budget. And we need to do it dramatically and we need to do it very soon.
Do you think ten-year trajectory for cure that you wrote about in your book is plausible, if there's a lot more money?
First, we could come up with some very significant developments in the next handful of years-even if we don't get more money. It could happen. There is a lot of money-it's not like Alzheimer's is ignored, there's a lot of money going into it. It just doesn't get the federal funding it deserves.
Alzheimer's was headed toward funding of about a billion dollars of NIH funding a year which people seemed to think would be about the right amount. [They] were getting very generous increases every year and when the book came out [in 2001]-it looked like we were about two to three years away from hitting that mark. Every target was being hit. And then, came 9/11 and that just changed everything. Now they're just clawing to keep the funding they have.