An elderly woman suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease had neither talked to nor reacted to any of her family members for years. Then, one day, she suddenly started chatting with her granddaughter, asking for news of other family members and even giving her granddaughter advice. “It was like talking to Rip van Winkle,” the granddaughter told University of Virginia researchers of her astonishment. Unfortunately, the reawakening did not last—the grandmother died the next week.
That event got written up as what the case study authors called terminal lucidity—a surprising, coherent episode of meaningful communication just before death in someone presumed incapable of social interaction. Yet it was by no means unique. Physician Basil Eldadah, who heads the geriatric branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), had heard such stories and filed them away as intriguing accounts. But in 2018, spurred by the need to make progress combatting Alzheimer’s, Eldadah began to think it was time to do more and organized a workshop for interested scientists. After all, if the grandmother was able to tap into mysterious neural reserves, cases such as hers might help scientists explore how cognition could possibly be restored—even briefly—in patients with the most advanced neurodegenerative disease.
This summer Eldadah and the scientists he assembled have taken the first steps toward systematic and rigorous study of what they are now calling paradoxical lucidity, a broader label intended to capture the dramatic, unexpected and puzzling nature of the phenomenon. The workshop participants published two papers on it in the August issue of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and the NIA announced plans to fund relevant research next year. The early goals are modest—the formulation of an operational definition and a gauging of the phenomenon’s prevalence. The possible long-term implications, however, are tantalizing. “If the brain were able to access that normal state, even if it’s transient, it would suggest that there’s some requisite level of machinery that can work under some kind of unique circumstance,” anesthesiologist and neuroscientist George Mashour, director of the Center for Consciousness Science at the University of Michigan and lead author of one of the papers, says. “That prompts a reconsideration of whether or not at this late stage in the disease, even with known degeneration, there is some kind of functional configuration that the brain can achieve with what remains. Even a chance at rethinking the foundations is compelling.”
Read the full article at Scientific American.