Mario’s job is to develop paradigms/ tests / tasks that may be able to detect dementia in the very early - pre-clinical stages. Before the disease’s onset actually begins. Amongst many other things, a part of Dr. Parra’s research, alongside Sergio Della Sala and Rob Logie, is a fascinating attempt to identify a particular diagnostic test that is unique to AD: binding. This is the ability not only to remember colour or shape, but to bind them together. Though anything conclusive is still a long way away, it was thrilling to see Mario explain how this kind of medical research could, one day, have a tangible effect on when we are able to diagnose AD, and therefore how early we are able to begin treatment.
Dr. Parra made the interesting point though, that (at present at least), this treatment, this rehabilitation, isn’t about fixing weakened systems. It’s about strengthening alternative systems to help cope with the weakness.
Again, the idea of ‘distraction’ came up. That an interruption to a process can derail a procedure. Someone with AD could, for example, be setting up for tea, get a phone call and then, having hung up, be completely unaware of why the crockery is out on the table, and clear it all up.
Linked to this, he told us of ‘The Breakfast Task’ where a patient is asked to prepare items for breakfast - cook eggs, sausages etc, for certain amounts of time each. Although, as he pointed out, there are a great many processes involved in this task and therefore can only really be used in conjunction with many other ‘pure’ tasks that focus on one aspect of cognition at a time, one of the most important is the ability to judge the passing of time (either with or without access to visual stimuli like clocks, timers, even the outdoors). This ability is greatly affected by AD and, as a result, patients’ biological clocks can be altered a great deal. It becomes difficult to know whether lunch was an hour ago, five minutes ago or even whether it’s time for breakfast.
This idea of being temporally disorientated, even within a domestic space, is, for us, a fascinating side effect of the memory problems associated with AD.
If Mario could address one issue of public engagement he would: Encourage people to try to get as early a diagnosis as possible. Don’t assume that decline in things is necessarily natural and normal, get it checked by a GP. The earlier they can diagnose dementia, the more effective the treatment can be.
and the image he described to represent AD was the logo he designed for the Alzheimer’s society of Columbia: a garden with some flowers in colour and others in black and white. It was his job, he said, to try to keep them in colour for as long as possible.