Editor's Note: A team of researchers in Italy recently used artificial intelligence and machine learning to diagnose Alzheimer's disease on a brain scan an entire decade before symptoms show up in the patient. While some people argue that early detection is critical, others believe the knowledge would do more harm than good. LeapsMag invited contributors with opposite opinions to share their perspectives.
Alzheimer's doesn't run in my family. When my father was diagnosed at the age of 58, we looked at his familial history. Both his parents lived into their late 80's. All of their surviving siblings were similarly long-lived and none had had Alzheimer's or any related dementias. My dad had spent 20 years working for the United Nations in the 60's and 70's in Africa. He was convinced that the Alzheimer's had come from his time spent in dodgy mines where he was exposed without the proper protections to all kinds of chemical processes.
Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn't. The theory that metals, particularly aluminum, is an environmental factor leading to Alzheimer's has been around for a while. It's mostly been debunked, but clearly something is causing this epidemic as the vast majority of the cases in the world today are age-related. But no one knows what the trigger is, nor are we close to knowing.
If my father had had the Alzheimer's gene, I would go get myself checked for it. If some new MRI were commercially available to scan my brain and let me know if I was developing Alzheimer's, I would also take that test. There are four reasons why.
First, studies have shown that lifestyle has a major impact on the disease. I already run three miles a day. I eat relatively healthily. But like anyone, I don't live strictly on boiled chicken and broccoli. And I definitely enjoy a glass of wine or two. If I knew I had a propensity for the disease, or was developing it, I would be more diligent. I would eat my broccoli and cut out my wine. Life would be less fun, but I'd get more life and that's what's important.
The last picture taken of the author with her father before his death, in 2015.
Secondly, I would also have time to create an end-of-life plan the way my father did not. He told me repeatedly early on in his diagnosis that he did not want to live when he no longer knew me, when he became a burden, when he couldn't feed or bathe himself. I did my best in his final years to help him die quicker: I know that was what he wanted. But, given U.S. laws, all that meant was taking him off his heart and stroke medications and letting him eat anything he wanted, no matter how unhealthy. Knowing what's to come, having seen him go through it, I might consider moving to Belgium, which has begun to allow assisted suicide of those living with Alzheimer's and dementia if they can clearly state their intentions early on in the disease when they still have clarity of mind.
Next, I could help. Right now, there are dozens of Alzheimer's and dementia studies in the works. They are short thousands of willing test subjects. One of the top barriers to learning what's triggering the disease, and finding a cure, is populating these studies. So, knowing would make me a stronger candidate and would potentially help others down the road.
Finally, it would change my priorities. My father died the longest death possible: he succumbed last year more than 15 years after his diagnosis. My mother died the quickest possible way: she had a stress-related brain aneurysm 10 years after my father's diagnosis. Caring for him was too much for her and aneurysms ran in her family; her mother died of one as well. I already get a scan once every five years to see if I'm developing a brain aneurysm. If I am, odds are only 66% that they can operate on it—some aneurysms develop much too deep in the brain to operate, like my mother's.
Would she have wanted to know? Even though the aneurysm in her case was inoperable? I'm not sure. But I imagine if she had known, she would've lived her final years differently. She might have taken that trip to Alaska that she debated but thought was too expensive. She might have gotten organized earlier to make out a will so I wasn't left with chaos in the wake of her death; we'd planned for my father's death, knowing he was ill, but not my mother's. And she might have finally gotten around to dictating her story to me, as she'd always promised me she would when she found the time.
Telling my father's story at the end of his life helped his care.
With my startup MemoryWell, I spend my life now collecting senior stories before they are lost, in part because telling my father's story at the end of his life helped his care. But it's also in part for the story I lost with my mother.
If I knew that my time was limited, I'd not worry so much about saving for retirement. I'd make progress on my bucket list: hike Machu Picchu, scuba dive the Maldives, or raft the Grand Canyon. I'd tell my loved ones as much as I can in my time remaining how much they mean to me. And I would spend more time writing my own story to pass it down—finally finishing the book I've been working on. Maybe it's the writer in me, or maybe it's that I don't have kids of my own yet to carry on a legacy, but I'd want my story to be known, to have others learn from my experiences. And that's the biggest gift knowing would give me.
Editor's Note: Consider the other side of the argument here.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby