My mother spent most of her life supporting families dealing with cancer, but now Alzheimer’s is becoming a comparable epidemic. In 2012, estimates held that nearly 5.4 million Americans had the disease in some stage. The neurological characteristics of the disease include formation of protein plaques in the cranial fluid, which start to develop as much as thirty years before the onset of dementia. In the final stages of the disease, proteins in the neurons themselves begin to tangle, killing the cells and leading inexorably to loss of muscle control and death.
My mother had recorded a Nova special on the efforts of drug companies to develop treatment for the disease. The resources dedicated to the research are impressive – the special focused on three companies running drug trials costing up to $1 billion. The treatments attempt to mobilize the immune system to harvest and break down the proteins that form plaques. Early treatments caused dangerous swelling of the brain. The current generation of treatments avoid that side-effect, but while the special heralded that breakthroughs were possible, to the scientist, the justification for that hope appears incomplete.
The researchers do not hope to reverse the progress of the disease, but hold forth the possibility that treatments may slow the formation of plaques. This hope is inspired by three-year studies that demonstrated that early-stage patients showed 30% less cognitive degradation than observed in patients that did not receive the drug. But Alzheimer’s evolves over decades, and we have no way of knowing whether long-term treatment won’t result in complications that rival the disease itself. Nor, without expensive radiographic imaging of everyone’s brain around the age of thirty, do we have any way of knowing currently who requires the treatment.
Obviously, if we understood why the plaques form in the first place, we might be able to prevent the disease entirely. Given the expense of the research, however, it is obvious that some commercial profit must be generated to keep the work alive. As with diabetes and cancer, long-term drug treatments will generate that revenue.
But can it ever lead us to a cause?
One of the criteria for canonization is proof of a miracle. In the case of Pope John Paul II, one of those demonstrations was the miraculous healing of a nun with Parkinson’s disease, another degenerative nerve condition. Scientists hold that such demonstrations are simple fraud or chance correlation with spontaneous recovery. But if we take spirituality seriously, we might expect that the development of human intellect would create stresses in our physiology that it was never designed to sustain.
As I understand our intellect, the brain is an interface to the world of ideas. In sharing ideas, we build power in them. This power is not held by any one individual, but held in what Jung called humanity’s “collective unconscious.” No other creature had ever created this kind of repository, and so we would not have inherited from our animal predecessors any mechanisms that would protect our brain from direct exposure to such energies.
Consider, then, what might happen if we taught our children that thinking occurs in the brain. Every intense intellectual exercise would intuitively manifest as an attempt to take control of ideas, to force them into the interior of our brains where we can manipulate them most directly. But each thinker that wrestles with ideas struggles against the intentions of other thinkers, creating dissonance and stress in the tissues of the brain. Might this not result in damage to that delicate organ, an organ that never evolved to deal with such strain?
In my own case, when I began to take charge of my mind back in 2002, I had to struggle against corrupt residents. The strain expressed itself physically in my brain as pressure, sensations of heat, and in the most extreme occasion, sounds of the cranial bone cracking. The events that most frightened me, however, involved a sensation of burning in the nerves along my ribs that I found similar to the symptoms of shingles in its early stages. When I realized this, I turned inwards, considering the structure of my mind, and traced the problem to an over-heated section of my brain in the back of my skull. Realizing that my mind was passing energy through tissues not designed to process it, I tried to shift the flow outwards, into the soul that blooms all around me. I felt of shifting of spiritual structures, and over the next few days, the symptoms disappeared.
My belief, therefore, is that even if we figure out how to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s using drug therapy, our medical science, with its focus on proteins and genomes, will never touch the root cause of our evolving epidemic of dementia. Our subconscious struggle for the control of ideas will simply intensify, and manifest in other forms of disease. No, it is the idea that the brain is the mind that is at fault. Only when we begin teaching people how to manage the part of their mind that resides in the soul will we be able to prevent dementia.