CONTRA COSTA COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. There is currently no cure and scientists don't yet fully understand what causes it in most people.
But one Bay Area doctor has a controversial approach to Alzheimer's. He claims there are subtypes of the disease and that -- in some cases -- the cognitive decline can be reversed.
The doctor and his team have published a study documenting 100 cases where patients underwent personalized therapy. In all 100 cases, there is evidence their cognitive decline was reversed.
In the office of her new medical doctor, Alzheimer's patient Heather Norris recently geared up to take a cognitive test known as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment or MoCA test. Dr. Mary Kay Ross wanted to know how well her brain is functioning
"Can you tell me which animal this is?," asked Dr. Ross.
Norris looked at each image and responded correctly: "Lion, Rhinoceros, Camel," she replied.
2 1/2 years ago, Norris took the exact same test and scored 18.
"It was really low." remarked Norris.
Her family had noticed she was not herself.
"They said I was repeating myself," said Norris.
"Heather had just started losing her zest for things. Her sense of humor wasn't there any more," said her husband Craig.
Craig was Heather's high school sweetheart. They've been married for almost 51 years.
Though Craig knew she'd changed, nothing could prepare him when he heard the diagnosis from neurologists at a major medical hospital.
"'Your wife has Alzheimer's. It's a terrible disease. We don't have anything that we can do to help you. Good luck with that.' It was pretty devastating," remarked Craig.
Heather believes she was genetically predisposed.
"Because my mother had passed away from Alzheimer's," said Heather.
Yet somehow, 30 months after her diagnosis, Heather's cognitive abilities and MoCA test scores are on the upswing.
"Heather is starting to remember things that I'm forgetting now," exclaimed Craig.
Her current MoCA score is 27.
"How do I feel now? I feel like I've got my life back," said Heather.
What happened to cause this reversal of fortune?
Heather and Craig credit one man: doctor and neurologist Dale Bredesen. Bredesen has served as chief residents in neurology at UCSF and is the founding president and onetime CEO of the Buck Institute.
"She's not cured, but she's markedly better," said Dr. Bredesen.
Dr. Bredesen has been studying the causes of Alzheimer's and he holds a fundamentally different view of the disease. He believes that the amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer Disease and dementia patients are the evidence of an inflammatory response to certain contributing factors.
"What we see if that people have cognitive decline, typically they have somewhere between 10 and 25 contributors," said Dr. Bredesen.
Some of these contributors he called "dementogens."
"A dementogen is a chemical that increases your risk for cognitive decline," explained Bredesen.
According to Bredesen, dementogens include a variety of substances: metals, like mercury found in some fish; organic toxins, such as benzenes found in cleaning products, pesticides, and plastics; and bio toxins abundant in certain molds and mildew.
Bredesen recently gave a talk at a UCSF symposium of "The Exposome and Metabolic Health"
"The reality is, we're all swimming daily in a toxic soup," said Dr. Bredesen.
Heather underwent a battery of tests and gave up vials of blood.
"This chokes me up a little. but because at the end of it he said, 'We know how to fix this.' And we went from 'There's no cure' to somebody who said, 'We know how to fix this,'" said Craig, his eyes welling up with tears.
The results revealed Heather had hormone imbalances, elevated blood sugar and very high levels of molds and toxins.
"She lived in a very moldy home for almost two years," commented Dr. Ross.
"We threw out our mattress, curtains, changed out all the flooring. It's like we're on this mad dash to figure out how to get rid of anything that would hold mold, mildew and toxins in it." said Craig.
Craig and Heather changed their lifestyle. They cut out processed food and all sugar. Now they consume up to 30 cups of organic vegetables a day, mostly in smoothies.
"That's how we get the vegetables in our system," commented Craig.
They boosted their exercise and sleep as well as brain exercises. They also added certain supplements to their diet.
Change did not come overnight.
"It was kind of gradual, but all of a sudden, she would make jokes again." said Craig.
Heather still deals with some cognitive difficulties, but her zest for life is back.
"We've got five grand kids and I want to be around," remarked Heather.
"I think our genes are not our destiny, We have our genes, and then it's the environment that we dip them in that's the thing," said Dr. Ross.
Dr. Ross recounted how Heather recently visited her original doctors at the major medical center. They told her that she could try to take the driver's test to get her license back.
"They felt that she had reversed her diagnosis," commented Dr. Ross.
Dr. Bredesen says his approach is not a cure, but a reversal of cognitive decline. He hopes that that the data that he is collecting will be evaluated by others. Bredesen said the earlier patients start the individualized treatment, the better the results.
He also explained that he hopes scientists continue to try to find a monotherapy to cure Alzheimer's Disease, but that doctors and researchers need to look further into what is triggering the brain disorder and look specifically at these triggers.
"It doesn't make sense to remove amyloid without removing what's causing the amyloid," said Dr. Bredesen.
Some critics of Dr. Bredesen are demanding more hard evidence that cognitive decline can be reversed in patients like Heather.
Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired family physician, writes in her blog that the hope for Alzheimer's patients lies in realm of research scientists "who don't collect hypotheses, uncontrolled observations, and patient testimonials, and throw everything by the kitchen sink at patients."
National Institute on Aging: Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet
Journal of Alzheimers Disease & Parkinsonism: 100 Patient Study on the Reversal of Cognitive Decline
Diagnosing Dementia: The Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA)
AHNP Health: Bredesen Protocol
UCSF Symposium: The Exposome and Metabolic Health
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