Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

December 21, 2015

Alzheimer’s isn’t just forgetting, it’s forgetting our assumptions

The rate-limiting-step to innovation is assumption.

Often, we have the infrastructure, the knowledge, and even the intelligence we need to move ahead, but stumble and fall over our own assumptions. Why didn’t Europe use immunizations hundreds of years earlier than it did? Why didn’t we discover – and make use of – the steam engine in ancient Rome? Why did flight, electricity, or sailing ships come about when they did? Why not earlier? Occasionally, we lack a critical piece of technology, one that slows us down for decades or even centuries. Occasionally, it’s an odd piece of data, a fact, a small subset of knowledge.

And sometimes, it’s a simple lack of intelligence: we simply aren’t very smart.

One key to being not-being-very-smart occurs when we make the wrong assumptions. Again and again, we misunderstand the nature of reality, while assuming that we already understand completely. Physics was all but certain – just prior to the end of the nineteenth century – that we knew all of physics except for a few niggling little details, but those “little” details left room for quantum physics and, ultimately, an electronics revolution, hence cell phones, the internet, computers, and computer blogs, like this one.

Assumptions have a way of limiting our vision. Obviously we can’t fly because, after all, how could something heavier than air possibly stay up in the air? Yet tons of steel and plastic manage that feat every day throughout the world. Obviously we can’t sail around the world because, after all, how could you avoid falling off the edge? Yet once again, the assumptions about “the world” were a bit off the mark.

Our assumptions about Alzheimer’s disease are – albeit with a desperately tragic languor – slowly beginning to change. The change involves a set of related, but slightly different assumptions, that are finally giving way. One assumption is that beta amyloid and tau proteins, are the cause instead of a result. Another assumption is that the cause lies within the neurons, which are merely innocent bystanders. We likewise assume that the cause lies in the genes, looking harder and harder in the wrong location, while ignoring the role played by changes in gene expression. A final assumption is more subtle: when we look at pools of molecules, such as beta amyloid, we look at them as a static accumulation of damaged molecules. We completely ignore the hallmark of biological processes, the dynamic turnover of all such pools. We then go on to focus myopically on the damage and completely ignore the broader and more critical question: why does molecular turnover slow down as we age, thereby permitting the damage to accumulate in the first place?

Today’s new federal budget has a 60% increase in funding for Alzheimer’s research, bringing total funding ($936,000) to just short of a billion dollars. Next year’s NIH budget also calls for just short of billion dollars ($961,000) for Alzheimer’s funding. Given the money going into Alzheimer’s, the risk is not that we lack funds, but that we lack insight. We will be funding research on sensors, biomarkers, and nursing care. Of the money that goes toward finding a cure, some will be aimed at sleep quality, diet, inflammation, and genetics. But how much of this will be – ultimately – fruitlessly spent on projects that don’t cure Alzheimer’s disease? We need to spend, but spend wisely. Throwing money does not per se conquer a disease that steals the minds and souls of those we love. We need to throw it accurately.

We need to reassess our assumptions and look, very carefully, at reality. If we want to cure Alzheimer’s disease, it will not be solely a matter of good intentions, political will, and funding. It will be because, finally, we chose to understand how Alzheimer’s disease works.

And we chose to cure it.

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