When Mice Are on Our Side: Dementia Research

Mice are dirty and a terrible nuisance — unless they’re advancing dementia research. We had a mini-invasion of mice two weeks ago and I set out sticky traps and clean-kill traps. The rodents have now departed and I didn’t cry at their funerals.  But there’s an amazing new mouse study that makes me smile.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Around the time of the ‘mousecapades’ at our house, I got an article about a scientific breakthrough in dementia research at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) of the University of Queensland. Working with sound waves, researchers at QBI have come up with a promising method for removing defective beta-amyloid and tau proteins from a dementia patient’s brain. Their approach employs something called “focused therapeutic ultrasound, which non-invasively beams sound waves into the brain tissue.”

The treatment sounds like science fiction, but the study’s sound waves managed to open up the blood-brain barrier. Their presence stimulated the brain’s microglial cells, which work at waste-removal. Once stimulated, the microglial cells were able to clear out the toxic beta-amyloid clumps which are responsible for the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This is just the beginning of the good news, so don’t let the science terms discourage you from reading more.

According to the QBI report, this process restored the memory function of 75% of the mice tested — with zero damage to the surrounding brain tissue! They also claim that “the treated mice displayed improved performance in three memory tasks – a maze, a test to get them to recognise new objects, and one to get them to remember the places they should avoid.” That’s starting to sound like a miracle.

Obviously, a recovery among study mice is quite different from the restoration of a human brain. But QBI team member Jürgen Götz, said his research team is already planning to start trials with higher animal models, like sheep. If they are successful, human trials may be underway by 2017.

If you want to learn more about the tremendous contributions made by the heroic mice with Alzheimer’s, you can listen here to an interview with members of the QBI team. In the meantime, I’m rejoicing at the departure of our house mice — and the positive implications of this research.

Season of Miracles, Despite Dementia

As the snow banks retreat and the first nibs of grass appear, it’s easy to see why this time of year is revered as a season of miracles. When ancient people observed their first celebrations of Easter and Passover, the changing world must have seemed remarkable indeed. The spinning of the globe was not fully understood; the world’s position in the grand universe was still a mystery.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Rare and Elusive Easter Bears

Life must seem just as magical to someone with advanced dementia. Once the symptoms get to a certain point, a person has no real control over what happens to them in the course of a day. Physical and cognitive limitations keep them from exercising free will. Yet, in most cases, their needs are met. Hunger rises and then food arrives. Someone helps them get nourishment. Teeth are grimy and a mysterious hand brushes them. Clean clothes appear; dirty ones get washed.

There’s no joy in being helpless. But there must be tremendous amazement at how this process of life continues to take place, despite so many obstacles. My mother is so delightfully happy when the sweet icing of coconut cake crosses her tongue. She is so grateful when we dress her in a favorite soft shirt or tame the cowlick in her hair.

Making it through the winter was a struggle for both of us. Hoisting bags of coal and dragging ash cans. Shoveling snow and hacking ice from the walkways. My mother got treatment for the wound that sidelined her from walking. Now, as the geese return and the robins make an appearance, it does seem like the world still offers small miracles if you’re really paying attention. Mom had some kind of Renaissance that is allowing her to witness another spring. I don’t know what tomorrow will be like. But today is a beautiful example of why it’s not wrong to be hopeful, even in bleak times. No more coal, no more snow. Just a couple of Easter eggs and a sweet sense of relief. May each one of you find a moment to sense it, too. Peace be with you all.