In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s
by Joseph Jebelli
(Little, Brown $28)
People generally don’t like to think about Alzheimer’s disease, “but we must,” said David Shenk in The Wall Street Journal. Fortunately, Joseph Jebelli has written an “elegant, thorough, compelling, and touchingly personal” history of this uniquely frightening neurological disease, giving us all the chance to understand its mysteries. The author, a young British neurologist, begins by recounting how as a boy he watched Alzheimer’s gradually steal away his grandfather. That experience sparked Jebelli’s interest, and he has used the rest of his book to chronicle the collective hunt for answers that began in 1901, when psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer came upon a middle-aged woman in a Frankfurt mental asylum who was suffering from pre-senile dementia. All the science in subsequent chapters springs from that encounter and the questions it raises in the reader’s mind. “At its heart, In Pursuit of Memory is about the virtue of human curiosity.”
Jebelli’s own crusading zeal fuels every passage, said Jason Heller in NPR.org. When his account touches on research breakthroughs from the past few decades, “he tracks down researchers and patients alike,” crisscrossing the globe to capture the scientists’ passion and the patients’ quiet suffering. When molecular geneticist Alison Goate undertakes a nearly impossible search for a genetic mutation common in Alzheimer’s patients, the story reads like a suspense tale—one with a happy payoff.
But Jebelli’s energy and his optimism can take him only so far, said Andrew Billen in The Times (U.K.). As he explains, researchers still disagree over the chief physiological cause of Alzheimer’s. Some blame clumps of plaque that accumulate on brain cells; some fault tangled protein inside the neurons; still others point to nerve-cell loss. And though the 31-year-old Jebelli predicts a cure in his lifetime, Alzheimer’s therapies tested this century have a failure rate above 99 percent. While Jebelli is right to laud the progress that has been made, in the fight against Alzheimer’s, victory seems to remain eternally just beyond our grasp.