A high functioning brain shifts deliberately between chaos and order. A lapse in this natural condition can cause real chaos in our lives. The idea that the brains functions in this state is known as self-organized criticality (a physics term used to explain complexities in nature).
Scans performed on healthy brains show that information is processed by complex cascades of brain wave activity that resemble ‘avalanches’ within our neural network All of our physical and mental functioning depends on the interrelationship between the brain waves within the network.
Lapses within the network create the disorganization in thought processing which is associated with dementia. Scientists now believe that the nature of the disorganization is the key to diagnosing specific kinds of dementia before signs of it actually appear. By the time dementia manifests itself in any significant way, it has ravaged the brain for years.
Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic are using functional MRIs to identify those most at risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Subjects are asked whether or not they recognize celebrities’ names like Johnny Carson and Britney Spears. When people with the highest risk of Alzheimer’s try to recognize a famous name, their brain activates in a different area than someone who is not at risk.
The test subjects were divided into three groups, those with no risk factors (the control group), those with a family history, but no genetic indicators of the disease, and those with a family member with Alzheimer’s and the genetic makeup for the disease themselves.
The groups with the family history and those with genetic makeup for the disease were considered the highest risk, and both groups showed high levels of activity in the areas of the brain involved in memory, proving that they were struggling to recognize familiar names. The brains of the control group lit up the MRI only when they struggled to recognize unfamiliar names.
These tests are not for early diagnosis, but as a tool to identify those most at risk, and direct them to lifestyle changes and clinical trials of drugs designed to postpone symptoms.
Stephan Rao, head of the team that conducted the tests says, “If we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years, by some estimates we can cut the incidence of Alzheimer’s in half. If we can delay the disease by 10 years, we could almost eliminate it because people would die from other conditions first.”