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BOOK REVIEW: In Pursuit of Memory – the Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli

| 24 September 2017 | 2 Replies

BOOK REVIEW: In Pursuit of Memory – the Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli

John Murray
May 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction/Family & Health/Coping with Illness & Specific Conditions


We are currently staring down the barrel of an epidemic with respect to the aging disorders Alzheimer’s and dementia. Human beings are living longer and these diseases have increased to the point where it will soon be our leading cause of death, overtaking things like cancer and heart disease. There are claims that one in three of us will develop Alzheimer’s and that one in two people will care for someone with it. These claims are confirmation that books like Joseph Jebelli’s In Pursuit of Memory are an important part of the conversation and it’s one that should be required reading by all.

As anyone who has known a patient understands, Alzheimer’s is a merciless disease. It strips the mind of decades of stored memories that have been sculpted and embedded deep within our brains. Slowly and steadily, it erodes an individual’s autobiography, the very narrative that defines who we are.

This is the first book to be written by Joseph Jebelli but we believe it won’t be his last. He is a neuroscientist who has studied at University College London and the University of Washington. He has dedicated his life’s work to discovering more about Alzheimer’s disease after watching his grandfather’s decline as a result of it. For Jebelli, this quest for a greater understanding is a deeply personal and moving one and this elevates In Pursuit of Memory from being just a dry, academic piece of literature.

I wanted to know. I wanted to meet someone at the very beginning of their descent and understand how we first lock horns with the disease, and what this means to those as confused as I once was. I also wanted a closer look at how our present understanding of the disease was reached. What did my colleagues and other scientists think caused it? Where were we in terms of an effective treatment?
What follows is a critical and impassioned journey to answer such questions, and a look at the surprising human stories that gave us this deeper understanding.

Jebelli’s work here was not always easy, even though his proficient prose sometimes makes it appear that way. Alzheimer’s is still largely misunderstood by researchers. The brain is an organ that remains a mystery in many respects. In spite of these potential stumbling blocks, Jebelli has done a fantastic job of gathering together and presenting the information that he offers here.

He (Kári Stefánsson) is an astute neurobiologist and a brilliant geneticist, but is one of the few people to stress how little we know about memory. ‘We haven’t the faintest idea how the brain generates memory. We don’t even have a useful definition of memory. And you’re going to write a book about a disease that assaults this function, but you cannot even define it! What the hell are you doing?’ Again, he had a point. I’d become so wrapped up in trying to understand Alzheimer’s that I’d swept the basic premise of what memory is under the rug.

In Pursuit of Memory sees Jebelli begin to trace this disease through history from the first reported case by German psychiatrist, Alois Alzheimer in the early 20th century. There is also some discussion about some of the physical changes that are found in the Alzheimer’s brain. This includes catastrophic nerve cell death and the discovery of the appearance of “plaques” or the sticky proteins that clump together between nerve cells and “tangles” or clumps of sticky proteins that form inside nerve cells and which have a threadlike appearance. This is interesting because, while most people will develop some of these things and undergo some degree of brain shrinkage as they age, not all people will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Healthy brains shrink and lighten by roughly 10 per cent between the ages of fifty and eighty. Some brain cells die naturally as part of this process, but most simply shrink and function more slowly – which is why elderly people can experience mild forgetfulness and occasionally have trouble with words and everyday tasks. But it’s still not clear why plaques and tangles can also accumulate during normal ageing. The greatest conundrum for early researchers, therefore, was how to square the fact that some people developed plaques and tangles while remaining Alzheimer’s-free.

This book has a lot of compassion for those with Alzheimer’s as well as their carers and families. Jebelli handles the subject matter sensitively and exhibits a lot of empathy as he describes the plight of his own grandad. He also interviews some other patients with the disease including one woman newly diagnosed with PCA (Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a visual form of Alzheimer’s), and another woman whose family carry a faulty gene that leaves them genetically predisposed to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Jebelli describes a lot of the research that has been carried out to date. Drug trials have proven largely unsuccessful with a 99.6 per cent failure rate. There have been studies that have looked at treating the disease with stem cells and the injection of young blood (the latter has been tested out on laboratory rats.) Some of these things might make people feel like it’s still very early days, but each new study scientists move one step closer to a treatment that will help manage or even prevent the disease.

This volume also has a section that is devoted to some possible preventative measures for Alzheimer’s. While a lot of the evidence to date seems largely inconclusive, Jebelli advocates the adoption of the following practices because they promote health and well-being in people, so they could positively impact Alzheimer’s.

Since we know that lifestyle measures are good for us anyway, the most sensible approach is to play it safe. So follow a Mediterranean diet. Exercise. Avoid stress. Stimulate your mind. Sleep. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In Pursuit Of Memory is ultimately a fine book that manages to explain a complex condition and breaks it down into language that is engaging and easy to understand. Jebelli’s book is meticulously researched and is a well-written investigation into the past and present breakthroughs with respect to the research, diagnosis, and possible treatments for this disease. It’s also hopeful and optimistic about the future of a disorder that has such a devastating effect on its patients. This is one important and insightful volume that could have far-reaching implications for present and future generations in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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