Apodaca: UCI MIND shining light on brain degeneration

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.

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.

I asked what drew LaFerla to Alzheimer's research. He told me that his mother had suffered from dementia and died at age 59. During the last several years of her life, she no longer recognized her own children, he said.

He channeled his pain into passion for his work; yet despite his dedication, LaFerla conceded that he had doubts after he took the director's job in 2008. At the time, government funding had been slashed, and he wondered if the institute could even survive.

LaFerla and other UCI MIND staff members launched a concerted effort to keep their work alive through private donations, grants and partnerships with private industry. They've staged benefits, including an upcoming 1960s-themed charity event in March at the Center Club in Costa Mesa.

The struggle for money continues despite the fact that UCI MIND has earned international regard as one of the brightest lights in the study of Alzheimer's.

That reputation rests largely on the institute's groundbreaking stem cell research. The study involved implanting neural stem cells (not the embryonic kind) into the brains of mice that were genetically engineered to have advanced-stage Alzheimer's.

The mice showed improved cognitive function, but surprisingly not because new neurons were formed to replace those destroyed by the disease, nor due to a reduction in the amount of brain lesions that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's.

Rather, the mice showed marked improvement because the remaining neurons in their brains formed new connections. It was like building irrigation canals to replenish lands that had been parched by drought, except in this case it was the mice's brains that began to revive.

It was a stunning finding, yet every new step forward from here promises to be difficult. LaFerla and his colleagues are preparing a new study using neural stem cells from humans on mice brains. The next stage would be trials on people.

It's an expensive, time-consuming undertaking. Just LaFerla's "mouse bill," as he calls the tab for housing the tiny test subjects runs upward of $30,000 a month. "I'm the largest user of mice on campus," he said.

"We have made tremendous progress in understanding the disease," LaFerla contends, but without sufficient funding further discoveries, and eventually treatments, will be elusive.

I don't recall exactly when I first suspected what was wrong with my dad. For a while, I attributed his fogginess to grief over the loss of my mother. In all likelihood, his decline had begun long before my siblings and I knew the truth.

Over time, Dad succumbed to Alzheimer's cruel progression — memory loss, agitation, occasional aggressive behavior, incontinence and a complete absence of any capacity to reason.

The professionals that helped care for Dad urged us to remember him as he was, not the empty shell that he'd become. My wish for my sons is that they'll never need to follow such advice. How wonderful it would be if LaFerla and his team at UCI MIND found a way to fulfill that wish.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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