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Still Alice, Still Looking for Answers

02/18/2015 01:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
Bauer-Griffin via Getty Images

In the movie Still Alice, based on the 2007 novel of the same name, Julianne Moore gives a heart wrenching performance as the fictional character Alice Howland. Howland, a professor of linguistics and mother of three children, learns she has a genetic form of early onset Alzheimer's disease. As her condition rapidly deteriorates, Howland and her family face a number of tough questions about love, life and death.

Moore has already won a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild and a Critic's Choice award for her performance, and this Sunday she's up for a Best Actress Oscar. While the story is fiction, Moore's gripping portrayal of a person going through the stages of Alzheimer's disease is an all-too-real story faced every day by more than 5 million Americans and their caregivers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more people annually than prostate and breast cancer combined. It's also the nation's most expensive disease, costing more than $200 billion in 2014. By the year 2050, that cost is expected to rise to more than $1 trillion annually.

Scientists have spent decades trying to better understand Alzheimer's disease to develop prevention strategies and drug therapies. Currently, there are only five medications approved by the FDA to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's, and none of them affects the progression of the disease.

Years before people develop symptoms of Alzheimer's, toxic changes begin to happen in the brain. Brain cells, called neurons, begin losing their ability to function and communicate properly. In time, they die. As the disease progresses, damage spreads to the area of the brain that forms memories, called the hippocampus, which leads to the characteristic memory loss we see in Alzheimer's patients.

The mechanics behind how Alzheimer's disease spreads in the brain and impacts memory is highly complex, but understanding the process is vital to finding effective treatments.

My colleagues and I at the Allen Institute for Brain Science are trying to make sense of those mechanics, and we're approaching the problem by studying the effect Alzheimer's has on brain-wide connections in the mouse brain.

Many studies on Alzheimer's disease focus on just one or a small number of areas in the brain, like the hippocampus. We begin our research in those hardest hit areas -- at the scene of the Alzheimer's crime -- but then, like any good detective, we start to take steps backward. We use viral tracers to illuminate how regions of the brain both near and far communicate with those damaged areas. Once we've followed all the paths of interest, we hope to end up with a roadmap of how Alzheimer's begins and spreads, and how the patterns of communication in a brain impacted by Alzheimer's differ from a healthy brain.

Understanding the patterns of connections that underlie Alzheimer's may give us a new way to tackle not just the symptoms, but also the progression of the disease. If we can understand the fundamentals of how the brain succumbs to damage, we have a much better shot at figuring out how to stop or slow the progression of disease.

As Alzheimer's research moves forward, we also need a better understanding of what it is like to live with the disease. Unlike many other diseases, we rarely hear directly from Alzheimer's patients themselves. The stigma of having a memory disorder is hard to overcome, and patients are often forced to abandon their independence and give up their own voice very early on. Movies like Still Alice that portray the loss experienced by Alzheimer's patients and their families are important because they give an emotional face to a devastating disease. Hopefully, they also motivate scientists to take new approaches to Alzheimer's research and find new treatments.

I hope that someday we can give people living with Alzheimer's the treatment options they deserve. Until then, Julianne Moore's performance is a Hollywood reminder of why that research is so important. She certainly has my vote on Oscar night.

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Julie Harris, Ph.D. is an Assistant Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

This post is part of a HuffPost Science series exploring the surge of new research on the human brain. Are you a neuroscientist with an insight to share? Tell us about it by emailing science@huffingtonpost.com.