Decoding Darkness: The Search For The Genetic Causes Of Alzheimer's Diseaseby Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ann B. Parson
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Working from the intriguing hypothesis that Alzheimer's dementia is the result of a renegade protein-beta amyloid-Tanzi and others set out to find the gene responsible for its production. Decoding Darkness takes us deep into the minds and far-flung labs of many a prominent researcher, offering an intimate view of the high stakes of molecular genetics, the revolution that propels it, the obstacles that threaten to derail it, and the families whose lives are so dependent upon it. Tanzi and Parson ultimately reveal that Alzheimer's, like heart disease, may be effectively treated-even prevented.
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Chapter 1: Cleave, Zap, Blot, ProbeAt twenty-one and fresh out of college, I entrusted myself to the Taoist philosophy that the less you interfere in Nature's course, the more likely you will find your true path in life. This wisdom flowed from a slip of a book I'd discovered in high school-the Tao Te Ching. In retrospect, it would seem that giving myself up to "the way of things" succeeded, because that fall, out of the blue, an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself, one that introduced me to a spectacular new scientific method and later prompted my investigation into the genetic wrongs of Alzheimer's disease.
It was a cloudy September Saturday in 1980, and after the quiet of summer, Boston seemed energized by autumn's return. Beacon Hill's narrow streets were clogged with cars, its crooked-brick walks filled with residents and students who seemed all business. On the Charles River even the sailboats crossing the watery line between Boston and Cambridge flew forward at a clip. A few blocks east on Blossom Street, which curves behind Massachusetts General Hospital, members of the rock band Fantasy and I moved more like laden barges. Sleep-deprived and hungover from the previous night's fling, we nonetheless managed with an elevator's aid to move the band's musical equipment into the Flying Machine, the nightspot atop the Holiday Inn that attracted everyone from visiting Portuguese sailors to the occasional Brahmin.
Four months earlier, in May of 1980, the University of Rochester had sent me into the world with what I hoped would be sufficient padding bachelor's degrees in both history and microbiology. The one, Time Past, had filled me with an indelible impression of the patterns and trends that span recorded centuries. The other, Emergings of Time Future, had left me startled by the phoenix soaring out of the present-the molecular-genetics revolution. Biology's horizon was filled with elaborate possibilities far beyond the imaginings of such tour-de-force microbe hunters as Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Paul Ehrlich.
In the course of my history studies, I'd devoured Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and taken away his valuable model. One set of beliefs ascends over time, then falls under the weight of a crisis, which inevitably ushers in yet another belief system that rises and similarly collapses, and so on, until there's a sense, as from a wave rolling forward, that you can extrapolate the nature of the next crisis and the new visions it will unfold. Now a scientist, I'm even more aware that the models we put our faith in are mostly wrong. Someday they will be as outmoded as the idea, imagined by Franz Mesmer in the eighteenth century, of how to relieve people of disease: Stand them across from healthy folk in a tub of water, have both groups grasp a long metal chain, and let the positive forces of animal magnetism flow from the healthy into the infirm, miraculously curing them. For scientific revolutions to take flight, current theories have to be questioned, the status quo disrupted. Since my years at Rochester, I've always wanted to induce the next crisis, inspire the next paradigm shift. This is the challenge of science-to shed dogma and get closer to the truth.
But scientific revolutions were the furthest thing from my mind that Saturday atop the Holiday Inn. I was in the throes of a postcollege existentialist crisis. Why did I exist? What was life? Living life as a bushyhaired, scruffy musician and playing keyboard once again with my musician friends from high school days seemed the best way to regain some perspective. When I was ten, my Uncle John had let me fold and unfold the huge red accordion he played in old-age centers around our hometown of Cranston, Rhode island, and from then on I'd been glued to the keys of pianos, electric organs, and synthesizers. Blues, jazz, rock, punk, improv, some classical. One form fed another. I'd come to realize that when I played music on a daily basis-even on an informal basis, as I had throughout college-life was always better. When I didn't, disaster struck...
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Meet the Author
Rudolph E. Tanzi is Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital's Genetics and Aging Unit.
Science journalist Ann B. Parson is co-author, with Isaac Schiff, M.D., of Menopause, and until recently taught in Boston University's graduate program in science and journalism.
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