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Why Do Our Brains Betray Us?
The Fight against Alzheimer's Intensifies

by Jeff Worley

Frederick Schmitt, a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, has two framed photographs on his office walls in UK's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. One is an M.C. Escher print in which water seems to run uphill, playing tricks on perception; stairways defy spatial sense and lead back only to themselves. Directly across from this, I see the famous Salvadore Dali self-portrait. Dali's face is a skewed and melting clock, his moustache the two clock-hands.

Frederick Schmitt headed up the university's part of a recent clinical study of memantine, an FDA-approved drug that slows deterioration in cognition and the ability to perform daily activities for patients with dementia.

Both of these surrealistic pieces must approximate what it feels like to be in the grip of Alzheimer's disease. The world is suddenly not what it's always been. Time warps. Everyday objects are otherworldly and disconcerting.

My father, late in second-stage Alzheimer's, would pick up a paperweight given to him for his many years as president of the Wichita Stamp Club and turn it over and over, trying to figure out what it was and what it was doing there on his nightstand. In the small house he shared with my mother, he began to regularly see his mother, dead 30 years, drifting through the hallways at night.

By now, almost everyone reading these words has lost a grandfather, a grandmother, a father, a mother, a sibling, or friend to the all-demanding claims of Alzheimer's.

As the baby boomers have aged, the number of people in this country with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders has grown. Newly published research suggests that 4.5 million Americans now have Alzheimer's and that the numbers will swell to as many as 16 million by mid-century unless a cure is found.

Here are a couple of other facts about Alzheimer's. The disease now strikes more than one in 30 Americans, slowly causing memory loss, confusion, and, ultimately, death. Incidence increases with age—about half the population that lives past 85 gets Alzheimer's. And the disease is the third most costly in the United States, each year draining $100 billion from the U.S. economy.

How and why do we get Alzheimer's disease? Why do our brains betray us?

For over 30 years the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging has been working to understand the mechanisms of Alzheimer's, always with an eye toward prevention. Dozens of projects carried out through the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center have made important inroads to our understanding of the disease—who gets Alzheimer's and why—and research in 2004 continues at a vigorous pace.

The projects discussed in the following pages are all concerned with a common goal: prevention and—in the longer run with the pooled knowledge of researchers worldwide—cure of this devastating and dehumanizing disease.

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For more information about Alzheimer's disease clinical trials at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, call 859/323-6729 or visit www.mc.uky.edu/coa.

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