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Archive for the tag “brain”

My media adventures

Ann seated w dr Manny IMG_2903 - Version 2

Alzheimer’s disease is so hard to talk about. Or write about, or make films about. But here’s what I’m learning this summer: focusing on volunteering for Alzheimer’s research is somehow easier, and if it’s a way to get people to talk about this deadly illness that now affects 5.3 million people and costs our country $226 billion a year, then I’m willing to do it. And if you actually saw me on Fox News’ Health Talk and you’re inspired to volunteer for research, here’s the Alzheimer’s Association’s Trial Match page. Go for it! IMG_1988As I wrote about earlier this summer in the Wall Street Journal, you will feel more useful than you ever have in your life.

I am forever grateful to Dr. Manny Alvarez and his wonderful producer, Paula Rizzo (check out her lively website and book on productivity, Listful Thinking) for inviting me to share my experiences on Health Talk. Ann_Fox makeup _2873I’m still taking in the crazy whirl of it–lights, camera, makeup–but hoping, more than anything, that a few viewers are persuaded to volunteer.

Momandme1998I volunteer for my mom. But I also do it for myself, and my children, and their future children.  And for the millions of people, worldwide, who are living with Alzheimer’s now, or will be someday soon: unless, that is, there’s a research breakthrough. Which is more likely to happen if more research volunteers step up. Remember, you don’t have to have Alzheimer’s, or have it in your family; control subjects are always needed.

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version hereHBBfinalcover

Whole Hearted

IMG_1447“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart.

And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing holiday misery, you’ll be zapped by those memories too. And if your brain is not at its best—if you are suffering from mental illness or if you have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, then this season can be like a walk through the carnival not-so-fun house.

Several years ago, ABC Nightline aired a report called, “Experience 12 Minutes of Alzheimer’s Disease,” which has become a popular Youtube video. In it, a reporter and a caregiver put on goggles, gloves with some fingers taped, small objects in their shoes to throw off their balance, and, worst of all, headphones that emit static and gibberish, which is what many people with Alzheimer’s describe hearing in their heads all the time. They then tried, and failed, to perform a few simple tasks. It’s devastating to watch. And to think about how it would feel to be so impaired, this time of year, with all the extra stimuli of the holidays.

Chances are, you are going to cross paths in December with a relative or friend who suffers from dementia, which makes this a great time of year to try to gain a little insight into their world. But you won’t have to put on goggles and headphones to do it. Hollywood is here to help. Julianne Moore has been getting stellar reviews for her portrayal of a college professor with young-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie Still Alice, which opens in Seattle in January. While you’re waiting to see it, read the book it’s based on. Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, was the first thing I ever read that captured the anguish and frustration of Alzheimer’s I remember seeing in my mother’s eyes.

Another good read is Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett. It’s the story of Ben, a Colorado rancher who copes by keeping notes in his pockets bearing important facts like his wife and children’s names. What drives the plot of Stars Go Blue is not just Ben’s Alzheimer’s, but his broken heart. He has an idea of how to mend it, if he can only get it done before Alzheimer’s gains the upper hand. The static in his head, the words and logic that elude him as he tries to accomplish this task—which I won’t reveal because I loved this poignant, poetic book too much to spoil it—make for a page-turning read. It’s almost as if, as his rational faculties leave him, he’s trying to go back, to function on the old-fashioned fuel of Heart with a capital H. It’s a perfect story for the holidays, when we’re all doing some version of that. Putting Reason in the back seat. Letting Heart rule.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress! 

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.HBBfinalcover




Brain Museum

ImageJust when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe.

I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general.

My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino.

A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”

In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints.

Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of one anonymous human being, whose body was long ago broken but whose brain had been preserved—symmetrical, intact, rippling with all the hills and valleys which were once rich with memories and feelings and insights.

And here, surrounding me, were walls lined with preserved slices of hundreds of brains, most of them afflicted with frightening diseases: Cystisercosis (tapeworms), Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.

There were other relics, too: brains that grew the wrong way, or too much, or not enough.

The Brain Museum was the archive of Dr. Oscar Trelles Montes, founder of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences. His patients came from all over the country to see him, because he was the only doctor in Peru who knew anything at all about their strange and distressing symptoms. He persuaded many of them to donate their brains to research after death.

I have participated in Alzheimer’s research. I have seen PET scans, MRI scans and many other images of the human brain. But certainly, I had never stood in a room lined with neatly sliced and preserved brains. And certainly I had never stared down a brain afloat in a glass globe, mounted on a bronze stand.

In an artist’s statement on his London gallery’s website, Herrera cites truth and faith as two of his abiding themes. The truth is that we are beings who reside in bodies; beings whose faith, attributes, loves and hates are all filed, mysteriously and invisibly, in the pink folds of a soft, three-pound organ called the brain.

And if one of my own abiding themes, inspired by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has been to wonder whether we are still ourselves when our brains are damaged or changed, then how presumptuous of me to think that this theme would not follow me everywhere I go. How dismissive to think that in a rapidly developing country like Peru, brain research would not also be a priority. In fact, Peru’s neuroscientists have a particularly fertile area to explore: the neurogenetics of a population with pre-European roots that date back thousands of years.

Once again, I was humbled by all I didn’t know: about the brain, about science, about the world and this corner of it. And every time this happens to me—this experience of being humbled, surprised, enlightened, all in one instant—I understand all over again: this is the very best reason to travel.

Give yourself the New Year’s gift of writing memoir. Register now for my non-credit (all about inspiration, not about stress) Intro to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central Community College. Six Monday nights. Starts January 6, 2014. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

photo taken in Ayacucho, Peru, by the Restless Critic, aka Rustin Thompson.

Grown-up Brain

Sitting in my email inbox is a message with this subject line: “Five memory-killing foods you should NEVER eat!” But does this email tell me what they are? No, of course not, because the spammer who sent it wants me to click on their hack-trap  link. The email is from someone named “Alzheimer Cure,” whose address is gaynell at brendy dot lookharbor dot info. Hmmmm.

Clearly, Gaynell, you have not heard the good news about the middle-aged brain. Turns out I am not a), so dumb and desperate I’m going to open your email or b), on some grim downward slide that started around 25, when my brain peaked, and will continue until I keel over.

Clearly, Mr. or Ms. Gaynell at Brendy dot Lookharbor, you have not read the book I just read: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, by New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch.

This is a book is packed with good news: the kind of news that tends to slip under the radar because it is so counter-cultural and confusing to our youth-worshipping media world. Strauch’s mission is to bring us up to date on the brain research of the past few decades, nearly all of which refutes the prevailing cultural brain myth of our time: namely, that young brains work better.

She does not deny the specific ways in which youthful brains have it over middle-aged or older brains, which mostly have to do with speed and short-term recall. But she paints a fascinating picture of the ways in which our brains not only compensate for those age-related changes, but in most cases, vastly over-compensate. I am simplifying 200 pages of great science writing here, but the main point is this: what we lose in speed and recall we more than make up for in judgment, which builds up over decades of perceiving, discerning, weighing, deciding. Wisdom: that’s the old-fashioned word for this.

And even as those of us over 45 lament our inability to instantly recall names or keyboard shortcuts, we get a lot of mileage out of our accrued wisdom. But we rarely acknowledge this, even to ourselves. All our lives have been spent in the era of youth-worship, of middle-aged crises, of the acceptance of inevitable brain deterioration. Experience, mastery, knowledge—those are not words we’ve been conditioned to value, not in the same way we value words like innovation, genius and start-up.

About that notion of brain deterioration: recent research shows not only do we not lose large numbers of neurons over time, our brains are actually capable of making new neurons.  Or, as Strauch puts it, “scientists now believe that the brain does not undergo complete disintegration as we age.” Not only that, but—and here, perhaps, our obsession with youth should get a nod—researchers can now clearly see the connections between exercise, nutrition, cognitive engagement and brain health. Especially exercise. Which means: if you want your wise, middle-aged brain to stay in great shape, there ARE things you can do. Number one: stay physically active. Thirty minutes or more, five times a week, or more.

Strauch thinks it’s time for a “middle-aged revolution.” After all, she says, the numbers are on our side. Maybe we need a better label, though. The word “youth” has such a nice whoosh to it.  “Middle-aged,” not so much.

Let’s all go for a long walk, run or bike ride and think about it.

News Flash: Our film Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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