The findings of a study at the University of California (Berkeley) seem to show that the human brain can adapt and find a way around damage caused by the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. And the longer and harder you’ve worked your brain in your lifetime, the better able it is to adapt.

The Berkley study involved 71 adults with no signs of mental decline. Their brain scans showed 16 of the older subjects had amyloid deposits – tangles of protein that are considered a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

All participants took part in a memory test while their brains were scanned to track activity. They were then tested on what they remembered, first in broad outline then in detail.

The scans revealed more activity in the brains of people with amyloid deposits than in the others, when recalling the details. Researchers suggest that their brains have an ability to adapt to and compensate for any early damage caused by the protein.

Dr William Jagust, a researcher on the study, said: ‘I think it is very possible that people who spend a lifetime involved in cognitively stimulating activity have brains that are better able to adapt to potential damage.’

The study echoes the findings of ‘the Nuns study’; a longitudinal study of people in religious orders by the Centre of Ageing at Rush University, Washington. Autopsies showed that some participants had Amyloid B plaques and tangles in their brains, although they had exhibited no sign of having dementia while they were alive.

Dr Jennifer Bute, a general practitioner who retired when she was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 63 mentioned the brain ‘rewiring’ at the Enabling Church Conference in Birmingham, earlier this year. See her website, www.gloriousopportunity.org

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of an active brain rewiring could be Christine Bryden, the author I mentioned in an earlier post. Christine was a top executive with the Australian government when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That was twenty years’ ago. In that time she has written two books, spoken at international conferences, and taken a degree in counselling.

When we met last November at the Celtic Manor here in Wales (the resort that became famous when it hosted NATO leaders early September) Christine told me that when he views her current brain scans, her consultant says she should not be functioning at the level she is. I asked what she thought contributed most, and she said, very directly, ‘The Holy Spirit.’

As far as I know, scientists don’t take the Holy Spirit into account when they do their research!

But are there little lights of hope here for Believers?

A ‘cognitively stimulating activity’ could include vigorous study of the Bible, which tells us to ‘be being filled’ with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).

Best to begin now. ‘Spend a lifetime …’ said Dr Jaqust.

The strongest hope of all for believers is surely the knowledge that there is life beyond Alzheimer’s, or any other form of dementia.  Jesus is very definite about it.  See John 11:26, and make a wider study of it from there!

Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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