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On a Journey to Understanding: Prepping for Brain Awareness Week

14 Mar

Next week is  The Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week — a global initiative focused on highlighting the benefits and advancements of brain research.  Yes, we have come along way (due in large part to the White House’s BRAIN Initiative) and researchers have made huge strides toward unlocking the mysteries of the brain.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Before diving into the wonders and insights as a result of another year of research, I want to talk about something we may never be able to get a handle on but has changed the lives of so many — more than likely at least one person you know –brain injury.

Brain injuries are tricky little devils. Most of the time they hide so well that no one is able to see them no less note that anything is wrong. Sometimes they show up after the most unlikely events  like surgery or treatment for a disease, or as part of the progression of a disease not necessarily localized in the brain.  They are not just the result of a traumatic physical incident or an accident or a fall or a stroke. Brain injuries and all the stuff that goes along with them sometimes simply pop up without warning.

Medical professionals give them names that sound so harmless, like post-concussive syndrome or chemo brain or brain fog, that they don’t even feel worthy of a deeper look. But they are.

Here is the big question: How do you help someone with something you can’t see? Even the well intended will miss the signs if they are not looking for them and, to be fair, how would they know to look?

The biggest indicator is change in behavior, attitude, level of involvement in life, personality, and routine. If you see a change, take a deeper look.

If you believe you are living with someone who has had some kind of brain change, here are some tips:

  • Listen, watch closely, and adapt to changes as they happen.
  • Drop assumptions and preconceived notions about how that person “should be”.
  • Slow down and think through your questions, especially when you get unexpected answers.  Perspective, among so many other things, changes so it may take a while to find the right question.
  • Find those things that are difficult and create ways to practice those skills in a safe place.   Games – board games, word games, car games, online games, apps – are ideal.
  • Think about how frustrating the changes are for you and now imagine having those same frustrations with no way to control your emotions or think your way out of them….
  • Find the experts as you need and support groups when you need.
  • Know that, if this is a brain injury, that person will change, not just during recovery but also might be different in the end. Make the most of that new person and celebrate what you can.

Understanding starts with digging in to all the great information that is out there.   The Brain Injury Association of America is one of the best content collectors on the subject and the resources, including personal stories of challenges and recovery.Brain Injury does not discriminate

Looking for an event to celebrate Brain Awareness Week? CLICK HERE for a searchable calendar so you can find one near you. If you are in or near Carlsbad, California on Tuesday, March 16, come visit Judi Bonilla, Gerontologist, and me at the Dove Library at 1PM for an introduction to Brain Fit Now!


A Vaccine for Alzheimer’s In My Lifetime?

28 Nov

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could find a way to head off the devastating progression of Alzheimer’s disease? Or, better yet, what if someone took some real steps toward a vaccine that would stop the disease from starting? Not to get too excited but it feels like researchers started moving in that direction at least on the front of being able to control how specific proteins act in the brain.

In order to put this research from earlier this year in the proper biological perspective, it is important to understand a bit about what happens in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease. The following is a compilation of facts from a variety of sources (see the list at the end of this post) and comes with a brain geek warning – this is not a light piece but will help those who are interested, understand just why the newly published research is so important and relevant.

Plaques and Tangles

Plaques and tangles up close.

Although there is some promise in diagnosing Alzheimer’s in people while still alive, right now the only way to definitively know if someone has Alzheimer’s is to take sections of their brain and inspect it for a build-up of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, and a degeneration of both white and gray matter in the brain (see illustrations below taken from the American Health and Assistance Foundation’s website

Let’s take these one at a time. Amyloid plaques form between neurons and are a result of the brain not being able to break down a particular protein – beta amyloid. Normally functioning brains break that protein down into a useable form and leave no waste. An Alzheimer’s brain does not break down that protein and the build-up interferes with or stops the good work of the neurons.

Neurofibrillary tangles are made up of another protein – tau protein. These tangles are aptly named – they are twisted, collapsed, and tangled versions of microtubule that normal brains use to transport nutrients between cells in the brain. In Alzheimer’s brains the tau protein is abnormal and causes these vessels to collapse.

When you add the lack of nutrients to interference with normal neuronal activity, the result is a clear indicator of

Brain and Nerve Cell Changes

Representation of the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Plaques, tangles, and tissue loss.

progressive, devastating cell death. Not a pretty picture but a glaring example of what happens in the brain when things go wrong.

So, where is the promise in the new research? A group from Quebec along with researchers associated with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, found a molecule (MPL) in an existing vaccine that, at least in mouse models, stimulates the brain’s immune cells and seems to be stopping the build-up of plaques…. That is huge. According to the chief investigator Dr. Serge Rivest, this discovery could lead to two distinct uses of GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine.

“The vaccine could be given to people who already have the disease to stimulate their natural immunity,” said Serge Rivest. “It could also be administered as a preventive measure to people with risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Wow, and from a vaccine that has already been through the full clinical trials testing for other uses in humans…. Maybe there is hope in my lifetime!

The photos above plus many more can be found at the American Health Associations’ Alzheimer’s Disease Research section of their website:

Here are some of the links I used to put the “facts” together above.

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