“OUR memories are who we are.” As Horizon: Curing Alzheimer’s (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) progressed, I felt more and more inclined to agree with the likely subjective truth of the presenter’s bald statement. Subjective, because while those of us who love and care for those suffering from the disease cherish the physical continuity with the person he or she used to be, for the person, the wiping out of memory means loss of identity.
This documentary, examining treatments from around the world, offered surprising levels of hope. More sophisticated brain scans mean that the disease can be studied in living patients rather than only by dissecting the dead. It accepted a new model: that the disease is caused by the interaction of two proteins in brain cells. The protein beta-amyloid acts like dental plaque, clogging up the connections in synapses; when triggered by tau protein, it causes tangles that kill the cells and stop new ones forming. It made compelling TV.
Surprising new factors are being identified as reducing the onset and effect of the disease: if you have eight hours of deep sleep a night, spinal fluid sweeps through the brain and effectively washes the amyloid away; induced deep sleep demonstrates far better memory function, even in fit healthy youths.
Diet and exercise all seem related to the likelihood of developing the syndrome. In sufferers, techniques of breaking down tasks into simple steps show success in recovery. But most radical is the development of drugs that not merely delay its appearance, but actually reverse its action. One researcher said that we could be within reach of being able to stave it off completely.
Louis Theroux: A different brain (BBC2, Sunday) also looked at catastrophic loss of identity — this time, in those who have suffered major brain injury. Theroux did not follow medical theories or practice: he simply used his odd combination of innocent curiosity and disarming personal weirdness to spend time with victims and their families and carers as they sought to live as normal life as possible.
He encourages openness from all whom he encounters — a rare and precious courage. The most challenging aspect is the extent to which they are the same person as they were before the trauma that caused the damage: if memory, behaviour, and reactions are now radically different, does it mean that only the physical shell of the body has survived, and the crucial identity has been lost?
One memory still thriving despite great age is that of the other nonagenarian we celebrate this year: Sir David Attenborough. The BBC has been regurgitating many of the finest archive films of its greatest national treasure in Sir David’s “passion projects”, demonstrating rather neatly that this humane, empathetic naturalist still shines a light in our dark world with a new film, Attenborough’s Life That Glows (BBC2, Monday of last week). It explores the phenomenon of thermoluminescence, now known to exist far more widely than ever imagined.