Illusions, Delusions, Alzheimer’s, and Metformin

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My son has a book called Optical Illusions in which there are pictures of things like a group of lines all pointing in the same direction.  The lines create the illusion of a circle and my son loves the fact that the circle is there – you can see it! – even though it isn’t.  “Can you believe it?” he says.

“I can,” I answer truthfully, not because I’m particularly impressed with the illusion, but because I can relate, for I spent a great deal of my childhood under the care of my grandmother, Bashy,  a woman who frequently saw things that weren’t really there.

I don’t mean that my grandmother saw apparitions.  What I mean is that she saw what she wanted to see, whether or not it was really there.  For example, if I asked her for chocolate milk and she didn’t have any, she’d serve me white milk and call it chocolate.  Neither arguing with her nor the very obviously glass of white liquid sitting before us would sway Bashy.  “It’s chocolate milk,” she’d say.

“It’s white milk,” I’d answer.

“It’s chocolate,” she’d say.  “I bought this morning.  I went out at six o’clock this morning for you.

What can you say to that, except “thanks”?

Now, there are different ways to interpret this story.  The easiest would be to say that Bashy was totally wacky (or insane) and leave it there.  I, however, prefer the warmer interpretation which says she loved me so much she couldn’t bear to not give me exactly what I asked for.

So throughout my childhood, many a potato chip became a pretzel, and many bowls of tasteless chicken lokshen soup were declared delicious.  And when I, as 70-pound girl, went to my first Bar Mitzvah party wearing Bashy’s size 12 sweater dress belted at the waist, and topped off with her sequined hat bobbypinned to my head, Bashy said I looked beautiful, not absolutely ridiculous.

With time, Bashy’s illusions (perhaps better named delusions) became more disturbing.  Her fears expanded, and so  she didn’t only claim things like turning the air conditioner’s  thermostat below 80 degrees would cause an explosion more dangerous than a nuclear bomb, she also began to fear the people around her.  The mailman became a threat.  She drew her drapes in the afternoon so none of the killers on the street could see her.  She even began to accuse me of stealing her things, the things she couldn’t find.  Because Bashy had always been “off,” it took a long time for us to recognize that something much more than wackiness was at play.  Bashy had developed Alzheimer’s.

Last month a paper about Alzheimer’s was published in PNAS, which I read about with great interest.  A study co-led by Dr Susan Schweiger from the University of Dundee, suggests metformin, the common type 2 diabetes drug, may help prevent the formation of a brain abnormality linked to Alzheimer’s.  Experiments on the brain cells of mice showed metformin  affects the tau tangles – filaments of toxic protein that build up in the neurons of Alzheimer’s patients. 

The Alzheimer’s Society commented: “Previous research has suggested that metformin reduces the risk of dementia in diabetic people, and this study provides some understanding of why this might be. The fact that the drug is safe for humans means it could potentially be tested more quickly than a completely new drug. However, further research is needed to fully understand the link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”

Whatever the link is, it scares me.  At some point one of my doctor’s suggested I take metformin.  At the time, I felt confident that I didn’t need it to help me control my blood sugar.  I still feel that way, however, now the drug has a much bigger appeal.

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bjames

I liked the article.  It’s well-written, and the touch of irony at the end is great.

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