Joseph Jebelli’s first book, In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s, is an in-depth look at the history of research into Alzheimer’s disease. He traces the developments from Dr. Alois Alzheimer’s observations and microscope studies in the early 1900s up through the groundbreaking research of today. It’s a lot of information to parse through, but Jebelli succeeds at presenting the advancements and setbacks in layman’s terms. There’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, which manifests in older adults as cognitive difficulties that range from mild to debilitating.
Jebelli is thirty-two years old and a British neuroscientist. His search for answers is driven heavily by his own childhood experience of watching his grandfather Abbas grapple with the disease. Jebelli, like the researchers and families he interviewed in the book, understands the urgency that we need behind funding and pursuing better treatments for Alzheimer’s. He notes that the disease ranks behind heart disease and cancer as a leading cause of death, which begs the question why more hasn’t been done on the subject until recent years.
Jebelli’s interviews with families illustrate the challenges that caregivers endure with not only the physical work, but also the emotional toll it takes. “I could have been anybody, a passerby in the street,” said a man named Danie, recalling the moment a longtime family friend no longer recognized him.
One of the saddest examples in the book is the encounter a woman named Carol Jenner, whose family history with Alzheimer’s led her to volunteer as a research subject and to serve as a strong advocate for awareness and research. Scientist Allison Goate investigated the DNA sequencing and tracked down the chromosome 21 mutation by 1991. It was one major breakthrough in finding markers or indicators to predict if you would have the disease later in life.
Yet, it’s a victory with a harsh and sad reality. “Here in front of me, was a woman who had transformed our understanding of the disease, a woman who had devoted most of her life to raising awareness of it,” Jebelli writes about a 2015 meeting with Jenner. “Now, she was scarcely able to say its name.”
That isn’t to say that Pursuit of Memory is a doom and gloom book. Far from it. There are small actions we can take now in our lifestyles like exercise, eating healthy food, and getting plenty of rest. He has the optimistic view that we may be 10-20 years out from a preventative medication. Jebelli says, “We are closer than ever to the abolition of Alzheimer’s.”
Jebelli highlights that our fight against Alzheimer’s spans the world and readers can follow his travels to other countries to see the latest technology being utilized. A Swedish institute looks at spinal fluid to locate biomarkers and predict the onset of Alzheimer’s. In Iceland, there are individuals with mutations in their DNA that mean they are essentially immune to Alzheimer’s.
Stem cell research is another avenue of research under close investigation internationally. Jebelli’s interviews with these researchers are illuminating as careful reflections upon mistakes or setbacks and where to go from there.
Pursuit of Memory leaves the door open for a follow-up book by Jebelli, which will be interesting to see from this thoroughly engaged neuroscientist. He intends to revisit some of the facilities that he mentioned. I am not sure about the time table he proposes for a cure. We can all do our part by joining in the effort to educate our family, friends, and peers. His book is a perfect tool for going about it.