When Memory Fades: Northern Light Alzheimer’s Research Program
As Bill Doak runs a wooden board under a scroll saw in the woodworking shop behind his home, he pushes too hard, the board jumps, and the saw blade breaks. Bill’s wife, Nina, is standing nearby with a nervous look. There’s sawdust on the floor and projects in various stages of production and repair, including a chest of drawers, “Bill has made thousands of dovetail joints but when he started this project for his grandson, he couldn’t remember how to make a dovetail joint,” explains Nina. Instead, Bill is fastening the drawers together with screws.
I hope the clinical trials I’m involved in can help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease for future generations. - Bill Doak
For Nina, it’s a good sign that Bill is still problem-solving, but this scenario is just one of the many new realities they are learning to deal with since Bill has been living with Alzheimer’s disease. “I built several boats over the years, and I’ve built many pieces of furniture. The work gave me a sense of comfort,” explains Bill, “And, now, not so much. It takes a lot of time.”
Bill takes long walks on the roads near his coastal home in Surry, reads books, and solves crossword puzzles. He does these things to keep both his mind and body fit. As she’s done for 40 years, Nina is at his side supporting him. As the disease progresses, so does her worry. She and Bill cared for Bill’s parents, who both had Alzheimer’s disease.
“Bill is a very bright man who has held important administrative positions at the National Institutes of Health. He was great with numbers, and that’s not there anymore,” says Nina, “Bill says that I’m angry. Yes, I am angry, but not at him. This disease is slowly taking away my best friend.”
Bill is doing all he can to slow the disease’s progression. He is part of a clinical research trial offered through Northern Light Acadia Hospital’s Mood and Memory Clinic, in which he is a patient of Clifford Singer, MD, chief of Geriatrics and principal investigator for Northern Light’s Alzheimer’s disease Research Program. Acadia Hospital, together with the University of California San Diego and the National Institute on Aging is testing a drug currently used to treat ALS to see if it slows Alzheimer’s disease. Bill is part of that trial. “There is a critical public health need. Because of our aging society, there is a doubling of the numbers of people with Alzheimer’s disease nationally and in Maine. The best hope we have of coping is to either prevent or at least slow the disease down,” Dr. Singer explains.
Northern Light Acadia Hospital is also partnering with Jackson Laboratory, a world-class genetics research institute. The hospital has clinicians and access to potential research study participants while Jackson Laboratory has state-of-the-art genetics laboratories, grant writing expertise, and researchers. Gareth Howell, PhD, associate professor at Jackson Laboratory, and his team of researchers are studying the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on mice at the genetic level. Dr. Howell says collaborating with a clinician with a national reputation such as Dr. Singer allows them to not only enhance research but also attract grants. “Our partnership with Dr. Singer allows us to go backward and forward between human patients and mouse models. You can understand more about the disease in the mouse if you have mouse models that look like the human condition. And so, there are benefits of having a close partnership with somebody studying the disease in humans,” Dr. Howell explains.
Northern Light Acadia Hospital also collaborates with the University of Maine and Activas Diagnostics, an Orono-based company, co-founded by Marie Hayes, PhD. Dr. Hayes is the principal investigator and project director for an NIH grant-funded research project. She was instrumental in securing a $1 million grant to develop and test technology that allows researchers to study sleeping patterns on a group of 120 study participants at their homes. “What if disruption of sleep is the earliest signs of neurodegeneration—not just Alzheimer’s disease, but Parkinson’s disease and other kinds of diseases associated with sleep disorders?” asks Dr. Hayes, “Early detection is the secret to treatment that’s successful.”
Ali Abedi, PhD, UMaine professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his team are collaborating with Activas, of which he is also co-founder, to help develop and test the home-based sleep diagnostics technology that Dr. Hayes and he patented. They created a prototype sleep monitoring device that looks like a mattress pad, but it has 32 sensors that can measure respiration and movement during sleep.
“And it’s much easier to operate because it’s in people’s homes. It’s not invasive; it’s in your own comfortable home. The idea is we create sets of signals that indirectly measure what’s going on inside your brain in terms of cognitive impairment,” explains Dr. Abedi.
Whether it’s studying sleep patterns, conducting genetic research on mice, or attracting human clinical trials to Maine, the best and brightest research, engineering, and clinical minds in Maine are coming together to find a cure for a brain disease that is affecting Bill Doak and many thousands of other people in Maine.
“I hope there can be a pill that would stop the progression and, if possible, help me gain back some of the things that I’ve lost, that’s what I hope,” explains Bill. “I also hope the clinical trials I’m involved in can help find a cure for future generations.”
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