It has long been the accepted wisdom that dementia is irreversible.
Could that be too simplistic a view? Newly-published information on one area of research offers just a hint that this judgement might need to be adjusted.
Much research into Alzheimer’s Disease points to the early stages of that condition damaging the brain’s ability to create and store memories. But one research group is making some intriguing progress with the hypothesis that the disease’s early impact is more about damaging the brain’s ability to retrieve memories, so that much more work is needed on how to keep accessing those memories. This approach also fits alongside one of the more promising approaches to managing dementia in various forms. There is some evidence that allowing patients to live with their older, better-retained memories can provide a less stressful experience for both patients and carers, provided this approach can be used without creating additional risks for the patient. This is not to suggest that the disease can be reversed, but that some of its symptoms or consequences could be slowed down.
The new research is at very early stages. The Economist posted an article on March 16, recording a report in the journal Nature of a piece of work in progress at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work does offer a glimmer of hope, but also pours cold water on another research avenue, the idea that a form of deep brain stimulation might be a key to helping the brain access stored memories which appear to have been lost.
Even if this research group proves to be on the right track, we are years away from practical outcomes to be applied to the management of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Yet there is room to be just a little encouraged. After all, we are only a couple of decades into the era of the scanning technologies which now allow scientists to observe the physical changes in the brain that track the development of these conditions and therefore help to show what needs addressing in trying to treat and manage the results.
None of this should distract attention from the present crisis in funding care for those unfortunate enough to be struggling with dementia. But it does point to the overwhelming case for intensifying research efforts in a field that gets much less funding than, for example, cancer in its various forms. We know that dementia already demands increasing care resources, and that government at national and local level is struggling to find ways to respond. It is good to have some basis for greater understanding about dementia, and thence for more effective treatments, even if still far off.