Are we getting any closer to effectively preventing or treating dementia? Unfortunately, not.
We should be closer. Researchers have provided us with the information we need to protect our brains. We understand the risk factors. We know the conditions that protect our brains and build their resilience. Why haven’t we leveraged these positive approaches? Follow the money.
Unfortunately, the successful interventions are socially complex and offer big business little opportunity for profit. The Alzheimer’s industry has chosen to pursue simple solutions that offer the promise of sustainable profits to those who can find and manufacture the “magic pill.” This myopic approach results in unwavering faith in failed approaches and dismissal of viable alternatives that stray from the accepted orthodoxies.
To make matters worse, the pursuit of profit over people corrupts the practice of good science. Neurodegenerative diseases are complex conditions that are not easily solved. In search of the quick dollar, too many are tempted to take shortcuts that lead down the rabbit holes of fraud, corruption, and quackery.
Here are some telling examples:
Recently, the field of Alzheimer’s research was shaken by allegations that an important piece of seminal research was fraudulent. In 2006, an up-and-coming French researcher, Sylvain Lesne, while working at the University of Minnesota, published an influential paper in the prestigious journal NATURE. Lesne reported that he and his colleagues had discovered a subtype of the Beta Amyloid protein (AB*56) that accumulated in clumps and caused dementia in rats.
This was considered a big deal. Lesne’s finding has been described as the “smoking gun” evidence that confirmed the Amyloid hypothesis, which posits that Alzheimer’s is caused by the accumulation of abnormal Beta Amyloid. Unfortunately, Lesne used doctored images to prove the existence of AB*56. The only other researcher who tried to replicate his research found no evidence of the new form of amyloid and subsequent investigation indicate quite clearly that Lesne’s documents were altered. Lesne succumbed to the need to publish positive results to bolster his reputation and attract funding.
Alzheimer’s industry was too eager to accept a result that confirmed their preferred paradigm (the amyloid hypothesis) and failed to catch the fraud in a timely manner.
Recently, the FDA approved the distribution of Aduhelm, the first new Alzheimer’s drug since 2003. Aduhelm is based on the Amyloid hypothesis—get rid of amyloid and you control dementia. But the evidence shows that Aduhelm provides minimal benefit—if any—and has some serious side effects like bleeding in the brain. Despite vigorous opposition from independent experts, the FDA granted its approval. Why?
Pursuit of the Amyloid hypothesis has become an industry that is too big to fail. Billions have been invested. Careers and reputations have been built around the approach. It is too difficult—and too expensive—to admit failure and start over.
Biogen, the maker of Aduhelm, is under investigation by both the FDA and the SEC for corrupt “marketing” of their drug. There are allegations that FDA officers were improperly encouraged to approve the drug despite expert advice to the contrary. The potential for big profits, unfortunately, leads to corrupt practices.
Since people are desperate to ameliorate the negative effects of aging and dementia, charlatans are quick to offer sophisticated versions of well-marketed snake oil. The sale of unregulated supplements is a $40+ billion dollar industry, with brain health supplements making up an estimated 10th of that market.
Prevagen is a supplement made from jellyfish of all things. It claims it can improve memory, support healthy brain function, sharpen the mind, and lead to clearer thinking. Their ads feature sincere older people who are paid by Prevogen to tell stories about how it has helped improve their cognition. There is not a shred of valid evidence that Prevagen provides any of those benefits. The FDA and the New York Attorney General sued the makers of Prevagen over their false claims, but the case has been tied up in court for years. No supplement has been shown to effectively prevent or treat dementia.
Brain problems are called neurodegenerative conditions because they involve the degeneration of brain cells. Brains falter when brain cells stop working properly. And brain cells get damaged and disrupted in myriad different ways, including unhealthy conditions inside our body and unhealthy conditions in the external environments. Until recently, there has been little political interest in cleaning up our environment, although there is clear evidence that things like lead in our drinking water and particulate matter in the air we breathe, are significant risk factors for dementia.
The weight of scientific research has, for quite some time, pointed toward lifestyle and environmental conditions as having a profound impact on the health of our brains. We know what to do to lower the risks and to amplify the protections. Why don’t we all adopt healthy behaviors and work together to clean up the planet that supports us? We don’t adopt healthy lifestyles because change is hard and big business doesn’t make it any easier for us. Large corporations make billions selling processed foods, manufacturing plastics, burning fossil fuels, and profiting from treatment rather than prevention. Politicians are corrupted by funding from big business so fail to legislate the protections that could protect us from inevitable damage to our brains.
So I’m not optimistic that the incidence of dementia will diminish in years to come—unless we can make some dramatic changes to the way we protect our brains and manage our minds.
Michael C. Patterson is the host of the MINDRAMP podcast and has recently launched a new series of podcasts called MIND OVER MUDDLE. Michael ran the Staying Sharp brain health program for AARP, is the CEO of MINDRAMP, and publishes the newsletter, Roadmaps for a Successful Longevity.