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Rats: The Big Cheese

Every other Thursday, we have Trish Vradenburg as our special guest blogger covering Alzh e imer's issues. Trish is a playwright, author, television writer, and Alzheimer's disease advocate. She and her husband, George, founded UsAgainstAlzheimer's with the goal of finding a cure or treatment for Al zheimer's by the year 2020. She brings her legendary humor and wit to the devastating realities of Alzheimer's, and we're excited to have her share with us here.


Oddly enough, I've never wanted to be friends with a rodent. Not cuddly enough.  Not fun to play with. I may have been the only person to dislike the Disney movie "Ratatouille," about Remy, a rat, who dreams of becoming a chef in Paree. With the help of his rat pal, Linguini (spoiler alert!), he makes his dream come true. All I could think about was a RAT preparing my meal.  Yuck!  Would I find little pieces of my brie and crackers mysteriously missing? Would the cheese in my quiche have little teeth marks? Would my apple flambé show signs of whiskers? Would all his helpers be the new members of The Rat Pack?

And yet, I've begun to rethink my position.

Recently I read a piece in The Huffington Post that reported coffee (caffeinated) improved mouse memory. So I'm wondering, how do they know that? Was he previously only able to retrieve his multiplication tables and now he's doing square roots? Still... the science shows it is happening. Apparently it is synergistic. Something in coffee causes stem cells in the bone marrow to come into the brain and remove the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. It also has a role in forming brain cell connections and creating new brain cells, according to the University of South Florida researchers. New brain cells? Bring me three cappuccinos! Plus, coffee is known to have other beneficial health effects including reducing prostate cancer risk and protecting against type 2 diabetes, liver cancer and Parkinson's.

Still reeling from the caffeine-laden mice, I read another rodent article in The New York Times, which was even more amazing than the java one. Memory implants are giving rats sharper recollections.

Apparently, says the author, "scientists have designed a brain implant that restored lost memory function and strengthened recall of new information in labs - a crucial first step in the development of so-called neuroprosthetic devices to repair deficits from dementia, stroke, and other brain injuries in humans."

In a nutshell, these scientists were able to reproduce memory function in rats. Rats learned something - how to get water by pushing a lever - then scientists used a drug to block their memory implant; they forgot what they learned. Turn the device back on, and suddenly, they're able to remember the original lesson. As the scientists put it: "'Turn the switch on, the animal has the memory; turn it off, and they don't: that's exactly how it worked,' said Theodore W. Berger, a professor of engineering at U.S.C. and the lead author of the study, being published in The Journal of Neural Engineering."

So I've been wondering, if I were in charge of my future memories, what would I choose?  High school proms are definitely out.  Like I would go through that again.  Select marriage years would make it; I would finally learn geography; I would appreciate the times I was pretty thin, but thought I was a hippo.  I would not get upset that my showy neighbor, Kathy, got killer designer outfits - which she did - that I couldn't afford.  But now that I am mature(ish), I think: Who cares when I can choose to remember snuggling in bed with my daughter when she was young and even now despite the fact that she's a grownup with kids of her own.  I'd choose to remember the time a week after my son had his first baby, who never ever slept, and he called me to say: "I just want to apologize for everything."  Maybe I should start recording now.

So here's to the mice and rats that have opened the door to restored memories and caffeine. Because, as the Times article points out, some restored memories (Where is the bathroom? Where are the pots and pans stored? How do I toilet myself?) could make a big difference in the lives of someone with dementia. "If you're caring for someone in the house, for example," Dr. Berger said, "it might be enough to keep the person out of the nursing home."  And that's worth a lot of cheese.
As for me, I'm going out for a double latte.

Photo credit: anemoneprojectors via Flickr

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