Dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease—the most common type of dementia—, is increasingly common, instigating unparalleled pain and suffering. Caused by brain disease or injury, dementia can result in personality changes, forgetfulness, and potentially death. Personality changes are particularly frustrating and heart-breaking for friends, family members, and caregivers.
Many people with dementia need round-the-clock care, which can be taxing and expensive. Currently, dementia costs the U.S. $259 billion per year. By 2050, the annual cost is expected to be over $1 trillion as the average age of the population creeps higher. Dementia incidence doubles every five years from ages 65-90. Not to mention that dementia can be deadly, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer, combined.
There are no pharmaceutical cures available today, but technology developers may be coming close to a cure. Recent research has uncovered that Alzheimer’s may be caused by a dysfunctional protein folding process in the brain. With this in mind, researchers are finding ways that technology can help diagnosis and combat dementia.
The misfolded proteins that build up in the brain are called amyloid-beta peptides. These plaques are toxic to neurons, causing functional deterioration.
But researchers have discovered that when they flicker LED lights in the eyes of mice at a specific frequency, half of the plaque buildup disappears in mice with early Alzheimer’s disease. Even the brains of mice with late Alzheimer’s disease had reduced plaque following the same treatment.
How could this possibly work? Mice that are genetically altered to eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease have fewer gamma brain waves. Overtime this unhealthy level of gamma brain waves leads to the formation of plaque clumps.
Light that stimulates the hippocampal brain waves at 40 hertz for one hour leads to a drastic reduction in these plaques. It does so by inhibiting the neurons from producing these amyloid-beta peptides and by prompting microglia to eliminate existing plaques.
This non-invasive procedure could revolutionize the treatment of Alzheimer’s in humans, although it has yet to be tested on humans. In some cases, humans do not respond the same way to stimuli as mice to, so further research is needed. But it is quite possible that the plaque build-up in human brains can be reduced with this simple treatment, as it is in mice.
Often, dementia is not diagnosed until a later stage because early symptoms of dementia may go unnoticed—especially if the patient lives alone. But a late diagnosis poses a problem for treatment; there is a better chance of slowing disease progression if treatment is started early.
Understanding the importance of early diagnosis, IBM launched a project—Dem@Care—with the goal of creating a system of sensors to diagnosis dementia and monitor its progression. These sensors, which include microphones, telephones, video cameras, and physiological sensors, would be implanted around the home. That way, even if the patient lives alone, potential markers of dementia will be recorded.
IBM believes that early dementia can be evident in a voice analysis because speech continuity and fluidity, semantics, vocabulary, and response time are all impacted by dementia. These sensors can easily pick up these changes in speech pattern, allowing doctors to quickly and accurately diagnosis early stages of dementia.
Not only that, but Dem@care can help monitor a dementia patient’s activity at home after diagnosis, so that if the patient lives alone, he or she will remain safe. Any potential hazards or problems picked up by the sensors can be addressed by the family or doctor. This may extend the time a person with dementia can live alone at home.
IBM recognizes that the number of elderly people, and particularly the number of people with dementia, will continue to rise. They are set to capitalize on this trend with their soon-to-be-released technology.
While brain training programs like Lumosity are controversial, some small studies have found them to be helpful in the fight to prevent dementia. While they may differ in method, all brain training programs have the goal of brain stimulation—especially the stimulation of higher-order thinking processes.
Once people finish their educational pursuits, they may stop actively seeking new ways to engage the brain. Brain training programs make it easy to encourage the brain to think differently.
Indeed, lifelong learners have a reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Although researchers have yet to discover the exact mechanism behind this, it is clear that a focused effort to continue learning—whether with brain training programs or independently—is an important preventative measure.
The Grain Brain
Neurologist David Perlmutter had seen so many patients with dementia that he was able to recognize a pattern: those who ate more grain throughout their lives tended to develop dementia.
Eventually he became so staunchly opposed to grain, especially genetically-modified wheat that contains high amounts of “poisonous” gluten, that he promoted a completely grain-free diet. He wrote the book Grain Brain to explain his brain-conscious diet.
Dr. Perlmutter’s dementia-prevention diet goes beyond avoiding grain; he advocates the consumption of healthy fats, in the form of coconut oil, fatty fish, and humanely-raised meats. According to Perlmutter, these fats, especially coconut oil, shield the brain from dysfunction. The short chemical structure of coconut oil allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) so that it can nourish brain cells.
Finally, Perlmutter promotes the consumption of organic plants and whole, unprocessed foods. Unlike manufactured foods that have been stripped of their nutritional value, whole foods are particularly nourishing for the brain and body.
The concept that the gut and brain are interconnected (i.e., the gut-brain axis) is relatively new. Because of this new gut-brain axis research, nutrition has become a highly promising, simple way to prevent dementia and cultivate mind-body health throughout life.
While there is not a foolproof, cure-all pharmaceutical when it comes to dementia, we are fast approaching a technology-based cure. Whether it is flickering LED lights, home sensors, brain training, or simply eating healthy foods, we may soon have a solution to this epidemic.