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May 6, 2009 > Alzheimer's Project

Alzheimer's Project

By Praveena Raman

"The Alzheimer's Project" is a four part documentary that is being presented by the HBO Documentary Films together with NIH's National Institute of Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, and Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Alzheimer's Initiative. The series is being aired on HBO on May 10 at 9:00 p.m., May 11 at 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. and May 12 at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m.

An irreversible, progressive and fatal brain disorder, Alzheimer's disease is characterized by loss of memory and thinking skills and also affects the behavior of the patient. In a recent Cafˇ Scientifique lecture on the topic, Dr. Lennart Mucke, Director, Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease (also featured in this documentary) said that this disease erodes and destroys the fragile structures that harbor the very essence of who we are.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia affecting about 5.3 million Americans and is the second most feared disease after cancer. Of the 5.3 million people it is estimated that 5.1 million are aged 65 and older. This figure is expected to rise to as much as 11 million by 2040 and predicted to have an economic impact on the health care system. The figures also show that about 200,000 Americans who are afflicted by this disease are below 65 years old with statistics showing that they could be in their early 60s, 50s, 40s and as early as in their 30s. People who are in the younger age group have the early onset of the disease due to a genetic abnormality they have inherited.

The disease was first described in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer after whom it has been named. Dr. Alzheimer found abnormalities in the brain of a patient. Further research has shown these to be tangles and plaques that are being formed by proteins in the brain. The plaques are formed by a protein called amyloid beta protein and the tangles, twisted fibers, by the tau protein. The plaques are formed between nerve cells and the tangles inside the dying cell. Everyone as they age has some amount of these tangles and plaques but it has been found to be in large amounts in an Alzheimer's disease patient. Scientists are still trying to determine the exact role of these plaques and tangles. They currently believe that they block communication between the nerve cells.

This disease has been found to be a very complex one and this complexity has been beautifully depicted in the third part of the Alzheimer's Project series, "Momentum in Science". The film also brings to the forefront the emotional burden of the disease and its effect on not only the patient but their families, caregivers and the community. The documentary shows how a multi-pronged effort of the research community across the world, in the areas of both social science and science is needed to understand this debilitating disease. In one of the studies scientists who had been studying the pathological sections of the brains of 2 nuns, one who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the other who had led a very active life and lived to a ripe old age, found there were less plaques in the brain of the Alzheimer's patient than in the active nun. This suggests that there might be more at play than just the plaques in this disease. Another social research effort that was presented was the case of a family of five siblings four of whom had inherited the Alzheimer's disease from their father who had died at a young age from the same condition. The emotional effect on the siblings and their sister who had not inherited the gene but who has decided to be the caregiver for her sisters and brother was also depicted. Among the other research efforts were studies on the correlation of vascular disease and epilepsy with Alzheimer's and the effect of exercise on the disease. The documentary ends with drug development efforts that are being done at pharmaceutical companies.

At a recent screening of the "Momentum of Science" in San Francisco, producer John Hoffman told the audience during the Q&A session that he and his team had researched and developed the explanation of the science at the graduate, undergraduate and high school levels for the end product. The efforts of the team have paid off - the documentary is not too elementary for scientists while being clear and understandable for lay-people. In the Q&A session the panel of scientists agreed that the focus of research should be on prevention as well as treatment. Also, more participation in clinical trials is sorely needed for further studies.

The four parts of the Alzheimer's Project series are "Memory Loss Tapes," which takes a look at individuals living with Alzheimer's; "Grandpa, Do you know who I am," where Maria Shriver gears this towards children and teens coping with their grandparents' illness; "Momentum in Science" which covers cutting edge research advances and "Caregivers" which highlights the struggles, sacrifices and successes of family members taking care of their loved ones. The project also has 15 short supplemental films, a website, and a nationwide community-based information and outreach campaign. The documentary is available as a DVD and a book which can be bought through A free screening kit from HBO is also available for community organizations who would like to screen this documentary. The request can be submitted at
A list of screenings around the nation is listed at

The schedule for the series airing on HBO is as follows:
Memory Loss Tapes - Sunday March 10, at 9:00 p.m.
Grandpa, Do you know who I am - Monday March 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Momentum in Science - Monday March 11 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday March 12 at 8:00 p.m.,
Caregivers - Tuesday March 12 at 7:00 p.m.

More information can be found at:

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