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Apodaca: UCI MIND shining light on brain degeneration

January 13, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

During the last years of my father's life, he slowly, agonizingly slipped away from me.

A proud and stoic man who had survived a heartbreakingly unhappy childhood, economic depression and a world war fell at last to the ravages of dementia. Helpless and childlike, his memory shattered along with his dignity — the personal quality he prized above all others — he was no longer the father I knew.

All I could do was watch until the day when the inevitable phone call came, letting me know that Dad was gone.

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So many others have had similar experiences with loved ones, and have felt as helpless as I did.

That's why I'm gratified that UC Irvine has emerged as one of the leading centers of Alzheimer's disease research.

At the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders — which has the catchy acronym UCI MIND — scientists are at the forefront of a promising line of study into the possible benefits of stem cell therapy on Alzheimer's.

These are the early days in what will surely be a long and costly battle against the plague of dementia. But it's a fight we all have an interest in waging.

About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and that number will certainly balloon as our population continues to age. In Orange County alone, where about 75,000 people have the disease or are at a high risk of developing it, the number of cases is expected to swell to 94,000 by 2030.

The precise cause of Alzheimer's remains mysterious, and there is no real effective treatment. Symptoms typically start with mild cognitive impairment — forgetfulness, disorientation — and degrade into full-blown dementia as the brain literally wastes away.

"It's a horrible disease," said Dr. Frank LaFerla, the director of UCI MIND.

LaFerla was generous enough to take time from his busy schedule to meet with me last week. He showed me around the UCI MIND offices, pointing out images of the brains of Alzheimer's patients, which clearly show how the tissue degenerates in areas governing learning and memory.

The brains of those in the advanced stages of the disease can weigh as little as half that of normal brains, he said.

I was astonished when he showed me paintings by Alzheimer's patients that line the walls of the institute. They were simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, and ranged from colorful self-portraits and landscapes to abstract, childlike designs.

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