October 19, 2009

Cognitive Science Fiction: Alzheimer's Edition

I recently read a very moving novel about a woman suffering from Alzheimer's, called Still Alice. In it, neuroscientist Lisa Genova writes about neuroscientist Alice Howland who develops early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50. I especially enjoyed the first-person account of the progression of the disease, and I'd recommend it to anyone with a loved-one or friend suffering from Alzheimer’s. I'd also recommend it to anyone treating Alzheimer's patients, as it presents Alzheimer's from an unusual perspective.

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  • Genova, Lisa. Still Alice. New York : Pocket Books, 2009.

October 12, 2009

This is Your Brain in the NFL

As I watched the Giants play football yesterday, I rooted for my favorite players, the offensive line, to have a great game. I also worried about their future, as those players are often susceptible to debilitating brain injuries after retirement.

That's according to some recent and troubling stories about brain injuries among former NFL players. The most detailed is the most disturbing: GQ's October 2009 article entitled Game Brain (available only through GQ's web site in a Very Clunky Format; soon to be available in LexisNexis & InfoTrac). Author Jeanne Marie Laskas interviews neuropathologist and self-proclaimed "brain chaser" Bennet Omalu in his quest to identify this new strain of "punch-drunk syndrome," formerly associated only with boxers. He calls it "gridiron dementia" in his readable and sobering book Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death.

Omalu named this disease strain chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery; Laskas notes that the article contained "scientific evidence that the kind of repeated blows to the head sustained in football could cause severe, debilitating brain damage." What Omalu found literally were "[b]rown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning."

Laskas also spoke with Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon of considerable renown who had for a decade worked as a Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor. Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University Hospitals, who was the first to tell Omalu that he believed in his research. The GQ article details both the medical quest to identify and the political issues as Omalu, et al. try to convince the NFL of their findings.

Since it's football season, there are some other articles about this as well, including one from last month's New York Times and today's New Yorker.
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