In Pursuit Of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli

The Blurb On The Back:

”When I was twelve, my grandfather began to act strangely. It started with inexplicable walks. He’d leave the dinner table and we would find him, half an hour later, aimlessly wandering. His smiles were gradually replaced by a fearful, withdrawn expression; he looked increasingly like someone who’d lost something irreplaceable. Before long, he didn’t recognise any of us.”

Alzheimer’s is the great global epidemic of our time, affecting millions worldwide. In 2016, it overtook heart disease as the number one cause of death in England and Wales.

It is also a story as compelling as any detective novel, taking us to nineteenth-century Germany and post-war England, to the jungles of Papua New Guinea and the technological proving grounds of Japan; through America, India, China, Iceland, Sweden and Colombia. Its heroes are expert scientists from around the world – but also the incredibly brave patients and families who have changed the way that those scientists think about the disease. This is a pandemic that has taken us centuries to track down and now we are racing against time to find a cure. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Dr Joseph Jebelli is a neuroscientist whose fascination with the study of Alzheimer’s disease started when he was 12-years-old and his grandfather developed it. In this fascinating, frightening but always very human book, Jebelli tracks the history of Alzheimer’s from its discovery by Alois Alzheimer in 1906 to the research into how we think it operates in the brain, the link to genetics, the development of drugs to try and combat it, research on lifestyle changes to try and prevent or mitigate it and – most terrifyingly – research into whether it’s transmissible in an easy-to-follow and gripping read.

Jebelli divides his book into 5 sections: Origins, Research, Prevention, Experimentation and Discovery with each section covering a specific – and self-explanatory – theme. What’s particularly good about the book is how he makes the science – including some quite difficult notions – easy to follow, building upon information in each chapter (e.g. about the three schools of thought as to how Alzheimer’s forms) to keep the story going. I was particularly gripped by the sections on Research and Experimentation as he looks at the competing theories (being particularly good on describing the rivalries and their advantages and disadvantages) and then how they inform experimental treatments. It helps that Jebelli brings in topics that have had a lot of attention in the press (e.g. the possibility of an Alzheimer’s vaccine) to explain the science and how it works and has – to date – failed to achieve its objectives. The gene therapy sections were especially interesting as he takes the time to describe the building blocks for each discovery and where it could take us and Jebelli doesn’t shy away from the difficult philosophical questions, e.g. what exactly is memory, as a way of highlighting the shortcomings that science still has when it comes to battling the disease.

What elevates the book though is that Jebelli is at pains to show what a very human disease. His description of Carol Jennings – a remarkable woman who wrote to a hospital when her father showed signs of the disease because she had noticed how it seemed to be common in her family and in doing so brought about the discovery of an Alzheimer’s gene – is utterly heart breaking, as is his section on the families in an remote area of Colombia who likewise have a genetic link to the disease, most likely brought across by a Spanish conquistador. Nor does Jebelli shy away from the experiences of his own grandfather or the guilt that this caused in his father.

Above all what this book shows is that there’s a lot that we now know about the disease, there’s a helluva lot more that remains a mystery and Jebelli’s anger at government failures to properly fund this disease is tangible and right – not least given the implications this has for elder care in Western countries and the time bomb that we’re all sitting on. I thought that this was a remarkable read and one that a lot of people would benefit from checking out. I can’t wait to see what Jebelli writes next.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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