Review by Justin Goodman
Of the diseases that perniciously disrupt and destroy human lives, few remain as common, historical, and still mysterious as Alzheimer’s disease. First discovered by Alois Alzheimer in the recently deceased Auguste Deter’s brain in 1906, the terminology we use hasn’t changed (tangles and plaques) except for adjectives we’ve discovered are significantly related (Tau protein and Amyloid Beta, respectively). That is to say that the 110th anniversary of Deter’s death and Alzheimer’s discovery, only five days prior to the release of the newest Nova documentary worrisomely titled “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped,” is a not a celebration of the power, so much as the recognition of the limits, of the human brain. This episode’s promotion of the idea that everything is “about to change” is, at best, disingenuous.
Described as an epidemic—by 2050 it’s predicted to affect 13 billion people over the age of 65—the regular viewer will find comfort in hearing the typically uplifting documentary music accompanied by news that scientists worldwide look forward to modern research’s results by 2020, within the lifetime of many currently living with or expecting the disease. One doctor summarizes the hope in a simple, concise way: she hopes to have her patients “die out ballroom dancing instead of in a nursing home.” Yet the sleek editing inaccurately reflects a reality crushingly reduced to the hope that, a Meredith Wadman puts it in Scientific American, “Can we make some impact? Can we define better molecular targets? Can we compress the process for drug development, evaluation and approval?”
Ignore that no viable drug for Alzheimer’s has made it to the marketplace because of ineffectiveness or side effects, deserving special mention is brain-swelling Edema. Ignore that that it was only in the 1980s that we began to realize the relationship between amyloid Beta and Tau proteins (as one researcher describes it, the former is the trigger and the latter is the bullet). Put aside, even, the fact that the purpose of the over-produced protein we’re working on removing from the brain is still widely unknown with any confidence. “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped” provides no serious answer to whether Alzheimer’s can be stopped. It treats science as an inevitability, ignores the seriousness of its titular question, and glosses over discussion with a limp history and patina. And worse than all this, to NOVA, science is less about education than it is about economy.
Between interviews with still lucid Alzheimer’s patients and clips of other patients undergoing tests they predictably fail—Not noticeably different from Auguste Deter’s: “What is your husband’s name?” “I believe…Auguste”— we primarily follow Genentech’s staff. Beyond laudatory, the episode comes across as an advertisement; already uncomfortable with the Laissez Faire philosophy of healthcare represented by the recent antics of Martin Shkreli, my wariness is heightened when, in introducing Genentech’s research, they clarify that the medicine will “not only help patients, but bring in million of dollars.” One of the running themes being the economic viability of Alzheimer’s (hint: unchecked, it will “bankrupt the entire medical system”) accompanied by an odd attempt at unfolding the events as a competition between companies.
What gestures it makes towards showing the accumulative relationship of scientists towards each other, explaining how the results of one group of researchers affected the methodology of a following group, are outstripped by this underlying suggestion of marketplace morality. If there is anything to learn from this documentary, it isn’t about the disease that will affect one in five individuals and which has clawed its way into popular understanding with award-winning films like Still Alice. Those who know nothing about this disease is statistically minute, even if the name they attach to it is not German: One of the families that helped prove a genetic link, there was a 50% chance of developing it in this particular Colombian family, attributed it to a curse.
What is learned from “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” is that truth is painful and reality dull. You can easily lose interest in those details of the special that attempt to slow-reveal the results of several years old studies, but this extended drum roll is the fact of many scientists work. The specific gene was discovered through the letter-by-letter combing of DNA to find “a C replaced with a T.” The scientists who found the genetic link spent months combing through public records to create an accurate family tree of the Colombian family. A doctor achingly sits with his mother and a calendar, trying to understand her writing, writing which he describes as “an abstracted two-dimensional version of the interior of the mind.” And how can we understand something we haven’t yet been able to read fully?
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