Monday, August 1, 2011

Building Neural Roads

Whether you have Alzheimer’s or are of a certain age that you’ve started routinely forgetting where you put your keys, you’re probably hearing a lot about the benefits of “exercising your brain.” We hear this “use it or lose it” philosophy mentioned frequently in sound bytes from medical experts, but what are they really asking us to do? And why? Are they just trying to get us to do lots and lots of crossword puzzles?

Here’s what they mean. Let’s think of the neurons in your head as roads, and let’s say you’re trying to remember a piece of information. Let’s say you’re trying to remember my name: Lisa Genova. When you think, “What is her name?” your brain starts looking for the road that will take it to the answer. You might travel down the road “Author of STILL ALICE” to get to Lisa Genova.

If that’s the only piece of information you know about me, you might have a hard time at first finding that one and only road. And because it hasn’t been well-traveled, the road might be small, unlabelled, maybe not even paved. It might take you a few minutes (or all day!) to remember my name.

But if you loved the book, if it stays with you after you finish the last page, if you talk about the book with friends and at book club, if you travel this particular road over and over, or in other words, if you practice and rehearse this information, “Lisa Genova is the author of STILL ALICE,” then the road becomes stronger. It becomes simple to find with a nicely labeled street sign, and it’s now wider and paved. After many experiences with “Lisa Genova is the author of STILL ALICE,” this road becomes familiar territory, smooth and easy to travel on. You now know my name and can remember it easily.

But what happens if you are in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, and amyloid-beta is starting to clog some of your synapses? Imagine amyloid-beta as a roadblock, keeping you from traveling down that road that leads to the information you’re looking for. What if amyloid beta is blocking the “Author of STILL ALICE” road to Lisa Genova. If this is the one and only road to my name, and it is blocked, then you can’t retrieve my name. Now when you ask yourself, “Who is the author of STILL ALICE?” you cannot remember no matter how hard you think. The information is inaccessible. Forgotten.

But let’s say you paved more than one road to my name. Let’s say you also built “Author of LEFT NEGLECTED Street” and “Neuroscientist from Harvard Avenue.” Now you can have a roadblock on “Author of STILL ALICE Road” and still have two other ways to get to my name. These other roads may not be the most direct routes to my name if you haven’t traveled them as much, but they’ll still lead you to Lisa Genova. You can still remember me.

The more connections you make to a piece of information (the more roads you build) and the more you use or rehearse that information (the more you travel those roads), the more able you’ll be to detour clogged connections (amyloid beta road blocks), and remember what you’re trying to remember.

Say you learn ten things about me. You've built ten neural roads. And now let's say you have Alzheimer's. You can have nine roadblocks, a significant amount of memory loss. But you still have one road left. You can still remember my name.


smberg said...

I just finished STILL ALICE and was moved to look you up and post a comment on the discussion board for that website. However, it seems that the website was invaded by a bot! (asthma meds). So now I am unsure whether you are still active on that site. I am curious to know your thoughts on Early Alzheimer's and the loss of executive your characters, my husband and I are both psychologists (though not famous) and in our early 50's. He is showing a marked loss in executive functioning skills (like decision-making, time management, and the ability to screen out irrelevant details). But he is not yet aware that he is showing signs of Alzheimer's, and it is only apparent to me because I know him so intimately. I wonder if that is a typical early indication of Alzheimer's that is usually ignored, and people are only diagnosed after their problems become much more blatant.

Shirley said...

Still Alice touched me personally as I watched my grandmother's health decline with it and eventually die. Now an aunt, her daughter has been living with Alzheimer's for a few years. I am so glad to have read this book as the unique perspective unveiled a new point of view for me. Thank you for that.

PS I reviewed Still Alice on my blog, My Bookshelf, and would love for you to read it. Please feel free to comment as well.

Unknown said...

thank you for your blog. it helps a lot!

hugabugg said...

Hi Lisa,
I was diagnosed in 2007, early onset ALZ., and my greatest struggle so far is the confusioin of words and sentences. I also notice a "blankness-staring" then not knowing what is going on. Is this part of a :nest stage"

Anonymous said...


In 1938 when the price of gas and crude oil was cheap Prescott Bush [the grandfather of current (2008) U.S. President George W. Bush] and Nelson Rockefeller [the son of John D. Rockefeller] contracted with Farbin I.G. to develop a crude oil based fertilizer in the West Nile Region of Africa. That formula which is known as Ammonium Sulfate and Ammonium Nitrate is the leading formula for most chemical fertilizers used world wide.

These fertilizers are devoid of sulfur due to the 380 degree F temperatures at which they are “crackled.” The other issue is that these fertilizers bind up any free sulfur available in rain water from the sulfur cycle.

Anonymous said...

his is a story that may be too convoluted to tell briefly. But regarding sulfur hopefully this will suffice. Chemical fertilizers were first developed in the 1700s by a Polish researcher. Not until Farbin ( Bayer ) adopted this research and began producing chemical fertilizers from coal tar in 1860 did their use affect those who ate the food. Two medical events which occurred in Germany we feel could be directly related to these fertilizers. 1906 Dr Alzheimer described “ women lost in their own minds.” otherwise Alzheimer’s which had not observed in countries other than Germany until after the adoption of the use of these chemical fertilizers. Most of Europe had adopted these fertilizers before the start of WW2. In 1920, Dr. Otto Warburg had an opportunity to see enough cancer to describe the basis for his Noble Prize work while cancer was less evident in other countries.

Anonymous said...

"Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food."

The research into sulfur revealed a relationship between oxygen and cancer, aerobic verses anaerobic cellular metabolism as described by Otto Warburg. He received a Noble Prize for proving that cancer was anaerobic in 1930.

What is the fertilizer in our food made of and what effects does it have on our health? How does the fertilizer now, in terms of mineral content, differ from the fertilizer of the pre-industrial age?

Pre industrial age fertilizers were organic, natural decomposition of organic material mainly manures. Chemical fertilizers are produced from high temperature processing of organic materials such as coal tar and later crude oil. The use of temperatures above the vaporization point of sulfur as described by the petrochemical company’s own web sites appear to be the issue.

Anonymous said...

Those cultures which have organic fertilized food supplies have lower disease than those who use artificial forms of plant foods. Finland banned the use of chemical fertilizers because of they feared the cadmium and its perceived toxic abilities in 1985. Their epidemiology has shown a 10 fold improvement compared to that of the US in 1985 which had almost identical numbers.

Anonymous said...

A review of the epidemiology of the US since 1954 when chemical fertilizers were mandated shows as much as a 4,000% increase in cancer and other disease entities. The responses from our Study members appear to suggest that by adding sulfur to their diets these disease entities have been reversed or addressed in a positive manner.

Other cultures such as the Amish which use only organic fertilizers also enjoy fewer diseases though we must rely on the fewer studies regarding their “epidemiology.” Okinawa and South Korea have lower disease rates compared to the rest of Japan or North Korea. Brazil has higher disease rates than Argentina which relies on manure rather than chemical fertilizers.

Anonymous said...


Patrick McGean

Body Human Project

Trina Lucile said...

Lisa, thank you SO much for the speech you gave Alice in _Still Alice_. I am taking her(your) words for my motto as I seek a diagnosis for my symptoms: "...just because I'll forget it some tomorrow doesn't mean that I didn't live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn't mean that today didn't matter."

James said...

Hi – Will you please post a link to your important Blog at The Alzheimer’s Community at Our members will really appreciate it.
Members include: Those living with Alzheimer’s, their families, friends, caregivers and support groups.
It's easy to do, just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website. You can also add Articles, Photos, and Videos if you like.
Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you. I hope you consider sharing with us.
The Alzheimer’s Community:
James Kaufman, Editor

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing :)

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