I am fascinated with the ways our past has shaped our present and how our present foreshadows the future. But connecting the historical dots that have led us to today, and projecting the footprints of the past into tomorrow, doesn’t always have to be impersonal.
In my last blog, I described my encounter and, eventually, enthusiastic involvement with The Smile of the Child (aka ‘Hamogelo’). Hamogelo is a Greek organization of volunteers whose tireless work has brought hope and restored the smiles on the faces of millions of young people and families who have faced a crisis. Hamogelo’s remarkable work has been going on for 25 years and counting!
Of course, Hamogelo is a public-service organization. But what connected me to it was personal—the untimely death of a very young Greek relative (ten-year-old Anna), whom we met for the first time in 2017, only to lose to disease in 2020. Anna’s family requested that a contribution be made to Hamogelo instead of flowers. And so, this fateful connection began the journey that revealed to me what Hamogelo was all about.
So, the arc that connects the past with the present and the future can be personal. In our lives, we live history one day at a time. But we can see a good deal of our present and even contemplate our future by looking into the past of the people we love and who happen to be older than us. Enter my Greek grandmother, our ‘Yaya.’
Yaya is our only surviving grandparent. Our living connection to the past. A very kind and sweet person, she has proven remarkably resilient across her time’s many challenges and hardships. Born in 1927, she narrowly escaped execution by the Nazis during WWII. Later she endured the hardships of the civil war that followed in the late 1940s. She raised her own family, along with my namesake grandfather (‘Yannis’ = Ian), in the years that flowed, which included the turmoil of the dictatorship of 1967-1974 (read in my brother’s blog an interview with our father, and her son). She has always been gentle but also perpetually resilient, being a descendant, through her own mother, of Manto Mavrogenous. Manto Mavrogenous was the celebrated female guerilla leader of the 1821 Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire (see my previous post and in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manto_Mavrogenous ).
Yaya visited us in California when we were too young to remember her. But my brother and I reconnected with her during our more frequent trips to Greece, starting in 2014. I could see how Yaya was fainting away during those visits, year after year. Always the same smile, warmth, and kindness, but less and less story-telling, questions, answers, and vivid conversation. Above all, less memory. Our good Yaya was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s/Dementia and has been slipping away ever since. This is a significant loss to all of us. And this is personal.
Alzheimer’s/Dementia are the terrifying buzzwords of today. A diagnosis without much hope currently. Or so most sources I looked at are indicating. But hope should come from somewhere—we cannot surrender to disease that robs our loved ones of their personal story and us of our roots.
In recent weeks I jumped at the opportunity within our Advanced Placement seminar class to do a research project on promising new ways to battle this scourge. True, nobody expects high school kids to develop a treatment out of a seminar project. But it is also true that what I found is not widely known and seems to bring justifiable hope to the people and families that have been hopeless for decades.
My project’s title was “How micro-dosing psychedelics can help treat Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” and it telegraphs the excellent news!
In my project, I learned that Alzheimer’s/Dementia is a disease that accounts for 50-70% of all neurodegenerative disorders and is the fifth cause of death in the world. It has at least 50 million confirmed diagnoses worldwide, a number that so far is growing every year. The reasons are unknown, and all attempts to halt or reverse it with conventional medicines have failed to produce good results. But new research, outside of the traditional pharmacological box, shows that psychedelics, delivered in small doses, can revive, if not restore, many faculties that fall prey to the dreaded disease!
Psychedelics are drugs known to alter perception and mental function. The FDA considers substances with currently no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, aka “Schedule 1” drugs. Psychedelics change perception and generate illusions (“trips”) by acting on our serotonin receptors and affecting many other brain pathways. Because of their capacity to affect the nervous system, several researchers have started to test how, in minimal amounts, those substances could be used to reactivate the very centers that Alzheimer’s/Dementia attacks. The early results seem to be very encouraging, decreasing many patients’ negative symptoms and even bringing to some of them a moment of clarity! As a researcher put it, “there is potential for psychedelic compounds to influence and enhance functional neuronal connectivity, stimulate neurogenesis, restore brain plasticity, reduce inflammation” (Vann Jones, 2020).
I hope that Alzheimer’s/Dementia research will progress rapidly and that the early promise of psychedelics will be justified and mark the turning point for conquering the disease. As this unfolds, drug authorities ought to remove psychedelics from Schedule 1, allowing doctors and patients to enlist them in their battle to control the conditions. Drug approval lags substantially behind drug development, which is a weakness in our institutions that we can no longer afford or tolerate.
This is the first glimpse of hope in our battle to control Alzheimer’s/Dementia with drugs. Millions of today’s patients, like our Yaya, and the many more millions of tomorrow’s patients-to-be, deserve our continuous experimentation and tireless mobilization in finding a cure. The goal is threefold: to, literally, save our past in the form of the lives of our loved ones whose cognitive capacities are receding; to brighten our present, which is marred by the worry about and the desperate care of our A/D relatives; and also, to secure all of our futures from the threats of this scourge.
It would be wonderful to give Yaya a glimmer of hope next time we see her.