Val Zavala: My dad died with Alzheimer’s, and that’s one of the reasons I joined the board of the local Alzheimer’s Association. But even I didn’t realize that the physical causes of Alzheimer’s start developing in the brain 20 years before the first symptoms even show up. Then I heard at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, there’s a renowned surgeon – a neurosurgeon – who’s developing a simple, noninvasive test that can possibly detect Alzheimer’s early. Can you imagine how incredible that could be? His name is Dr. Keith Black. Dr. Black and his colleagues know how important it is to be able to detect Alzheimer’s early.
Dr. Keith Black: By the time someone actually develops symptoms with Alzheimer’s disease, by the time they get memory loss and cognitive decline and behavior problems, they’ve already lost 40 percent of their brain cells.
Val Zavala: So how does the test work? Well, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s is the destructive plaque that develops slowly in the brain. The problem is, it’s invisible in live patients. Until now. They key? These little yellow capsules.
Dr. Keith Black: We’ve discovered that a special naturally occurring compound called curcumin, which is the active ingredient in the Indian spice curry or turmeric, actually binds to these abnormal plaques. This curcumin has a natural fluorescence. So what we do is that we’re able to detect this fluorescence when it binds to the plaques and the retina with a special modified retina scan.
Val Zavala: In other words, a simple spice extract adheres to the plaque and can be seen with a retinal camera, similar to the kind ophthalmologists use.
Dr. Keith Black: And the beauty of that is the eye is the window to the brain. So when you look through the eye, you’re looking at the brain.
Val Zavala: The retinal scans look like this.
Dr. Keith Black: All of these spots are essentially these plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease that we can see. So it’s very easy for the patient. We’re given three days of pills, curcumin that they can just take in a chocolate pudding. This gets into the blood, then it goes to the brain, binds to the plaques then we can see these plaques fluoresce if they are present in the retina.
Val Zavala: Dr. Black and his colleagues Yusef and Maya Coronio will be presenting the results of their research at a conference this July. But how did a neurosurgeon get interested in Alzheimer’s? Well for Dr. Black, it was very personal. His mother developed the disease.
Val Zavala: How long did your mother have the disease? 10 years she lived with it?
Dr. Keith Black: About 10 years. Because you don’t really die of Alzheimer’s disease, you die of complications. Because we could give her really good care, she didn’t die of any of the complications so she lasted a very long time. This is a very difficult disease. Not only for the patient - because after the disease becomes advanced - the patient becomes apathetic to the disease. But really more so the toll it has on the family and loved ones.
Val Zavala: But would people really be willing to take a test that could deliver such bad news? Susan Galeas is executive director of the southland chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. About how many calls do you get?
Susan Galeas: Last year we received almost 10,000 calls.
Val Zavala: So a lot of people would say I don’t want to learn that I have Alzheimer’s, and yet there are some benefits. What are the benefits of knowing early on, that you’ve got Alzheimer’s?
Susan Galeas: If you can learn that you are faced with this disease earlier in the disease process, it allows you as an individual to become personally involved in planning for your future, in your family’s future. To potentially take medication that will delay the progression of the symptoms and get involved in clinical trials. There are a lot of clinical trials taking place here in Southern California.
Val Zavala: Gary and Lisa Bricker are facing an unnerving future. Gary is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He was a real estate attorney until his memory started slipping.
Val Zavala: So what was one of the first signs that gave you some indication that something was wrong?
Lisa Bricker: One day, he was to meet his boss and they were going to be going to Anaheim together and he got lost on the way to his house.
Val Zavala: Do you remember this incident?
Gary Bricker: Oh yeah. And it wasn’t the big boss, but it was the guy who was above me. And I had been to his house a couple of times, and I made the wrong turn. As a result of that, by the time I got to his house, he had had to leave.
Val Zavala: He lost that job and then another. Lisa and Gary spent about five years confused and stressed.
Lisa Bricker: We were like in quicksand and it was affecting our relationship and we couldn’t even have a conversation.
Val Zavala: Then finally, at a presentation on dementia, they realized what Gary had.
Gary Bricker: I realized oh my god. You know. This is what I have. And oh, expletive. And there’s no cure.
Val Zavala: How much a difference would it have been if you could have been diagnosed earlier? If say, five years earlier?
Lisa Bricker: For us, I think early diagnosis would have really helped us plan financially huge. Because we would have made...instead of flailing and reacting and wondering what the heck was going on, we would have made other plans. Gary and Lisa have started a nonprofit called Alzheimer’s Across America to help others get help sooner and Gary writes a blog on their website.
Gary Bricker: It’s just really weird – this human condition. That is, one day you feel like a million bucks, and the next, you feel like you fell into a deep well.
Val Zavala: They’re also very active with the Alzheimer’s Association and Gary wants to volunteer for clinical trials.
Gary Bricker: Right now, I’m on disability. I’m on social security disability. That’s what I’m doing. I feel like I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution. And I want to be part of the solution.
Lisa Bricker: What was the hardest thing was that we didn’t know, so we weren’t talking about it. And now as soon as we knew, it was like…oh I have to tell one friend, and I have to tell five. And at first, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Gary Bricker: Well at first I didn’t want to. Because it’s the denial thing. And so then I finally said, “go ahead.”
Lisa Bricker: But the more he talked about it, the better we felt. He has seen the results of that as well.
Val Zavala: Dr. Black says by the time we reach 85, a stunning 47 percent of us will have Alzheimer’s. But a simple non-invasive test to detect Alzheimer’s early could mean millions could get treatment sooner. And even if it’s not a cure, it might not have to be. For people like Gary and Lisa, just delaying the symptoms could be a sweet victory.
- Your Turn To Care Dementia and Alzheimer's
What if a compound from a common spice could help detect Alzheimer's in patients? A team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is developing a test that could make early detection possible, and a first step for the patient would be taking pills derived from curcumin, which is found in turmeric, an ingredient often used in Indian curries.
Knowing earlier than later would be helpful to patients. Gary Bricker was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 63 in 2012, but during the years leading up to his diagnosis, Bricker’s relationship with his wife suffered immensely. To add to the stress, Bricker -- a former real estate attorney -- ended up losing two jobs.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Bricker and his wife Lisa decided to launch AlzAcrossAmerica, a nonprofit organization that hopes to provide resources and a support network to those affected by the disease. (And for information on clinical trials, check out TrialMatch at the Alzheimer's Association).
In this exclusive "SoCal Connected" report, Val Zavala discusses early Alzheimer's detection, and what this means for families who are hoping to plan for health situations in advance.
6 Steps to Preventing Alzheimer's
KCET's "Your Turn to Care" reported on Alzheimer's and dementia extensively two years ago. In the below video, Dr. Gary Small, author of "The Alzheimer's Prevention Program," gives some tips: