In search of memory

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“If we find a cure against Alzheimer’s it could change many aspects of the mankind. Life expectancy could extend, as this disease is a premature aging process,” states Dr.Lopera. “If we are able to cure Alzheimer’s we will be probably be able to cure other degenerative neurological diseases as well.”

Although Dr.Lopera is enthusiastic of the medical advances with Alzheimer’s, he remains cautious that a cure is on the horizon. “This project is based on the amyloid hypothesis. At this moment, there is discussion if amyloid is really the cause of Alzheimer’s. I am convinced that the project will be successful independently of the medicine’s effectiveness because once and for all we would have tackled the amyloid debate.”

The virtue of Dr.Lopera’s studies lies in wanting to analyze the impact of drugs applied to amyloid in a healthy brain. This is a radical departure from the current research where drugs are given when a candidate already has an advanced state of disease. By the time the medication tries to connect, the brain cells are simply too destroyed. “We are going to do a preventive study with people who have minimal deposits of amyloid,” states Dr.Lopera. “Later on, we could do a prepreventive study on persons younger than 28 who don’t have any amyloid, but are carriers.”

Dr. Francisco Lopera, leading researcher on early-onset Alzheimer's

Dr. Lopera’s research requires the intimate cooperation of families with genes that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s, including the donation of brains.

Of the 500 families around the globe with the gene for early-onset, 25 are in Antioquia. For this scientist the local population has provided the world with an ideal laboratory for the study of amyloid-rooted Alzheimer’s. Another defining aspect of the Antioquia illness is Dr.Lopera’s insistence on the role of geneology in tracking the gene. “We had situations in which persons who might never have met, who lived far removed, came together, and could recognize traits in each other.”

If potential sickness can bring people of all backgrounds together, then it has also torn millions apart. Alzheimer’s renders a subject lifeless, except that the body stays functional. Unlike certain cancers, persons with severe mental atrophy can live to an old age, and being unable to perform even the most basic of tasks, represent a high cost for governments and healthcare. The cost of Alzheimer’s is estimated at USD $600 billion every year. And this, not considering the difficult emotional and financial toll on families.

To get to the compound at the core of the Alzheimer’s debate, Dr.Lopera needed brains. Along with the dedicated team of his 30 medical students and interns, he has collected 200 human brains, which are carefully stored at the SIU. But getting his first donated brain required a good set of brakes.

The year was 1995. Alzheimer’s until then could only be conclusively diagnosed post mortem. Dr.Lopera devised a strategy to start a brain bank and went to the community. With a booth called “Neuro Banco” at the University of Antioquia’s Science Fair, flyers were passed out asking for brains. “We wanted brains from persons who had or knew of relatives with neurological disease,” remembers Dr.Lopera. People were curious but hardly responsive.

Then a woman in the town of Angostura passed away who had Alzheimer’s, and Dr.Lopera got in his car and drove to the wake. “I went to pray,” he remembers. “Between prayers and more prayers, I tried to convince her 14 children that this brain was important for science. I explained, one by one, that Alzheimer’s was in their family and that instead of letting the worms go at it, they could help others in fighting this disease.”

It seemed to work. They all agreed. An extended ‘Paisa’ family had reached a consensus. But then, at the eleventh hour, one son retracted asking for 20 Million Colombian pesos (USD $12,000). “You are going to sell my mother’s brain to the gringos!” was his belief. Stunned by this remark and the fact that Dr.Lopera would not pay for any brain, the children saw the value in his quest and authorized the brain’s removal.

Of the 200 brains in the SIU bank, 60 have hereditary early-onset Alzheimer’s. The donation program has been highly successful and has created awareness in Medellín and its surrounding towns, that the scientific research being done at the U of A needs the involvement of the community.

To lose your memory is to lose a sense of self. To lose this sense of self is to disconnect from your beliefs, your ideas, your emotions. A sickness which today affects 5.4 million in the U.S. alone has been growing steadily as baby boomers age. Even though conventional Alzheimer’s may be an inevitable sign of advanced aging, the Antioquia case study, and the many young men and women afflicted with early-onset, harbors the potential to transform modern medicine.

After three decades of research this soft spoken doctor takes it all in a day’s work. He is passionate about Medellín and that a cure for Alzheimer’s will be found. Although we may not be here to see it, there is one medical truth that will remembered: Dr.Lopera and the families of Antioquia have contributed to the health and memory of the world.

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