Friday, February 09, 2007

Loneliness In Old Age Linked To Alzheimer's : When Mind and Society contribute to neurological disorders

This is a nice medical research study and it comes from practitioners in the field of Alzheimer's, not from fundamental research on animal models. However, researchers might be encouraged now to produce a credible laboratory model for loneliness to further investigate the question. We definitely need both fundamental and medical practice induced research.

Some diseases have biological and social manifestations, Parkinson, Tourette, Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, and so on. They have also biological and social causes. However, the pervasiveness of materialist thinking among some scientists who work on the mind and in some intellectual circles makes it impossible to have a concept of a neurological disorder in sociological terms . I have an example: Ian McEwan's Saturday have two characters with neurological degenerative diseases; Baxter who has his early symptoms of Huntington disease and Perowne's mother who has Alzheimer. The central character is a neurologist and the author gives his neurologist a background theory on human consciousness, emotions, and behaviour which falls into the most reductivist materialist theories of mind. We are told details about the inner workings of the brain and what genes have to do with these diseases but we are not given a single hint about how modern scientific efforts in the field of Neurology and Psychiatry are tracking both the biological and psychosociological aspects, factors, and sometimes causes of the diseases. We are being served a vision of human mental life and behaviour that does not account for the dominant current paradigm in Neurobiological Sciences which considers human behaviour and consciousness as a result of a long history of transactions between Nature, personal history and Society.

The study on Loneliness and Alzheimer does not give a proof that loneliness is actually a cause but it does demonstrate that it is not a symptom of Alzheimer's. That is. It does not appear to be a behavioural result of the biological factors contributing to Alzheimer. On the contrary, it appears to be a contributing factor. And it surely exerts this influence through biological channels for emotions, stress and mood. It is not physical loneliness that matters here but the patient's own perceived loneliness. What matters to my brain is how I feel and what I think, this thing about me that cannot be reduced to few chemicals and some degenerate cells. Our biological Self is not shielded form our body, from our presence to the world - and not in the world, as Merleau-Ponty would put it. Biology does not exert a one way influence and initiate behaviour and thought with the internal biological machinery from the inside to the outside because this same machinery is actually structured by the outside, starting with the interface formed by our bodily and perceptual interactions in nature and society, and reaching deep into our biology, including gene expression (not gene sequence). From birth until death these interactions shape the biology of growth, maturity and old age, as in Loneliness and Alzheimer.

This study is a breakthrough and it will surely be followed by more scientific evidence gathered from other levels of organisation of this complexe entity that is the Human being. It is promising also for theories of consciousness because this kind of investigation occuring at a high level of mind functioning is needed to fill the explanatory gap between internal material causation in the explanation of consciousness, that is, causation that exists between the different parts and levels of the brain producing thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and the external material causation chain, causation linking outside factors, like ways of life and our social psychology, with the internal causative chain in the brain.

I smile when I remember that, in Mc Ewan's Saturday, Perowne takes great care not to eat cheese because he believes that fat helps build the degenerative plaques around brain cells leading to Alzheimer. What this study tells us however is that no matter how much we eat or don't eat cheese, the way we lead our life, give it meaning and directions, both psychologically and morally, is as important as the piece of cheese in the shaping of our old age physical diseases. And Perowne might as well develop Alzheimer, after all. Because in addition to the fact that he might have inherited a risk gene from his mother, his loneliness is obvious. The conscious stream of one day in his life tells the story of a lonely son, a lonely husband, and a lonely father. Although he is able to reach some empathy with the people who surround him, his empathy never reaches a level where he can consider himself through other people's eyes. He is so infatuated with himself and his knowledge that the reader is never presented with the slightest glimpse into what others think of Perowne. His loneliness is so evident when we consider his wife's character. This character is so flat and seen only through the eyes of Perowne as an object of love, pride and happiness that we never get to know who is the real person behind.

Maybe loneliness is, after all, the condition of the modern inner life of men and women in an era where individualism and personal achievement are perceived the number one criteria for happiness. Not the Other, not the Other... "Overall, these data suggest that both the quantity of social interaction and the quality of social attachments affect risk of late-life dementia," concluded the authors of the research.

In the Press: Loneliness linked to Development of Alzheimer's

Source article: "Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease."Robert S. Wilson, Kristin R. Krueger, Steven E. Arnold, Julie A. Schneider, Jeremiah F. Kelly, Lisa L. Barnes, Yuxiao Tang, David A. Bennett.Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2 February 2007;64:234-240.

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