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August 25, 2005

Daydreaming and Alzheimer's disease

The AP points to a new study in this week's Journal of Neuroscience that posits a causal link between daydreaming and Alzheimer's disease:

A new Washington University study shows the part of the brain used to daydream is the same where Alzheimer's disease develops -- in some people -- later in life. It suggests the normal brain activity of daydreaming fuels the sequence of events leading to Alzheimer's.

"The implication, albeit a speculative one, is that those activity patterns in young adults are the foothold onto which Alzheimer's disease forms," said lead researcher Randy Buckner, associate professor of psychology. He said they may lead to a life-long cascade that ends in Alzheimer's disease in some people. [...]

Researchers at Washington University and the University of Pittsburgh used five imaging techniques to map the brains of 764 people. The subjects fell into three groups -- people in their 20s, and older people with either early-stage dementia, or Alzheimer's disease.

When they compared images, they found that parts of the brain involved in musing, daydreaming or recalling pleasant memories in young people were where evidence of Alzheimer's disease appears.

The study prompts several interesting hypotheses. Maybe zoning out is intrinsically hazardous in excess. Daydreaming might be intrinsically harmless but ultimately detrimental if it cuts into time spent in healthy mental exertion. Or, perhaps the Alzheimer's disease process begins earlier in life than we usually assume.

The researchers readily acknowledge that their research is speculative. They aren't claiming to have established any causal links yet, let alone established which of the many logically possible relationships might be operative.

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Does too much daydreaming or, if you will, too much unfocused time contribute to Alzheimer's?The researchers compared PET scans, MRI images, and other data from 764 participants with dementia, mild dementia, or no dementia. The images revealed that pos... [Read More]

Comments

Now this is frightening to me as one who daydreams incessantly.

I'm having a serious problem correlating even "speculative" results with the data as stated. Alzheimer's starts showing in the brain bits used for daydreaming and pleasant recall? Um, breast cancer shows up in the bits some women use to feed babies, so...

Sheesh.

Ron, if breast cancer were correlated with lifetime milk production or years spent lactating, you might wonder if there were a causal link between lactation and cancer.

Our fictional endocrinologists might entertain any of the following hypotheses: Maybe unusually heavy lactation is intrinsically dangerous, or maybe producing all that milk interferes with other healthy breast processes that usually prevent cancer, or maybe some other trait predisposes women to bountiful milk production and cancer.

Continuing the breast cancer analogy: women who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast cancer.

Aren't we always told that exercise will help keep our various parts healthy in our old age?

We've been told that working crossword puzzles, using chopsticks and other activities that engage the brain are good for *avoiding* Alzheimer's, so what gives?

Maybe exercising the daydream parts does keep those bits healthy--hence their preservation in Alzheimer's patients with a long history of daydreaming.

But people who overtrain their zoning-out skills might be doing so at the expense of other faculties, hence their vulnerability to the cognitive declines associated with Alzheimer's disease.

No more fishing!

Given that both daydreaming and the starting point of Altzheimer's are co-located, how does this suggest that excessive daydreaming leads to Altzheimer's? Wouldn't an equally valid hypothesis be that insufficient daydreaming causes attenuation in these particular nerve endings which may then cascade into Altzheimer's?

The results of this study are interesting and may provide possible avenues for future research, but by no stretch of the imagination does it provide support for either of these two mutually exclusive hypotheses.

Maybe zoning out is intrinsically hazardous in excess. Daydreaming might be intrinsically harmless but ultimately detrimental if it cuts into time spent in healthy mental exertion.

Fuck. I'm doomed.

Well, I'm fucked. Might as well give up now. I give myself another 30 years before I...

um...

Sorry. I just flashed on Rachel McAdams naked in a bubble bath holding a homecooked calzone in one hand and a buy-in credit to the World Series of Poker in the other.

What were we talking about? And where are my car keys?

My guess is that the lizard brain sez "Shit!.. the fancy part upstairs is crappin' out. Might as well get stuck in a place where it was happy, anyhow.." ^..^

I know squat about neurology, so I'll stick with my area of expertise, which is daydreaming.

As generally used, the word covers a multitude of sins (and one or two virtues), from sitting around in a near-trance state via rerunning past experiences, indulging generic fantasies, up to composing quite complex and sophisticated fiction which you just don't get around to writing down.

Are all these activities equally dangerous? Do they even use the same areas of the brain? If not, which ones should we avoid? Is there any hope left?

Were back to correlative relationships vs. causal relationships again.

All Alzheimers patients breath therefore breathing causes Alzheimers.

I can easily imagine that Alzheimer's is excessive daydreaming, or insufficient attention to the present or actual memories due to excessive daydreaming.

Depression often involves a lot of daydreaming and fantasizing. OTOH so does childhood.

I only read the part posted on this site, but I saw nothing to indicate even correlation, let alone causality. All they noticed is that daydreaming uses the part of the brain in which Alzheimers first appears. It is equally plausible that daydreaming prevents Alzheimer's. A well developed capacity to switch into and out of fantasy may help.

I'm with Chris: we almost certainly have to distinguish different kinds of daydreams. My intricately plotted daydreams (you don't want Rachel McAdams to hold the calzone while she is in the bubble bath, it might get soap on it; first you cook together [very romantic] then you eat, then you take the bubble bath) are almost certainly better mental exercise than the times that I just zone out.

Njorl...

You seem to be correct. I did read the linked material and the article ends with...

Neil Buckholtz, chief of the dementias of aging branch at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the study, said the data are interesting even if the conclusion is speculative.

"A critical question of Alzheimer's disease is why certain parts of the brain have diseased nerve cells and other areas of the brain seem fine. This paper speaks to that question."

It remains to be seen whether there's a "real relationship" between the daydreaming part of the brain and Alzheimer's, he said."

"But people who overtrain their zoning-out skills might be doing so at the expense of other faculties, hence their vulnerability to the cognitive declines associated with Alzheimer's disease."

Doesn't this suggest that those who daydream professionally (fiction writers, lets say) would have higher rates of dementia late in life? Those who have to daydream for long hours to create a new idea would be vulnerable. I suppose Einstein could be offered as a possible example of this. Having spent his 20s in a universe thought to be quite different from our own and then, at the age of 26, proving that this other universe was actually our universe, and then late in life falling apart mentally, he seems an example of what is here suggested.

But then, as I mentally go over the biographies of 40 novelists who I like a great deal, I can't think of one who developed Alzheimer's. (Depression, alcoholism, writers-block, and suicide, yes, but Alzheimer's, no.)

Is it true that, in general, those who daydream professionally have higher rates of Alzheimer's? This should be an easy thing to check.

"As generally used, the word covers a multitude of sins (and one or two virtues), from sitting around in a near-trance state via rerunning past experiences, indulging generic fantasies, up to composing quite complex and sophisticated fiction which you just don't get around to writing down."

I do often write it down. Whether I'm giving a speech or writing a weblog entry, I always daydream first, and often I repeat it several times over the course of several days, and then write it down, or deliver the speech. Daydreaming seems to me to be part of the natual production process of most innovative or creative work. As you say, the word "daydreaming" has many meanings, but this particular meaning is clearly one if its major ones.

Personally, I also have episodes, very roughly once every 3 to 6 weeks, where I cry uncontrollably, think the world unbelievably beautiful, and get very, very creative. My best ideas come out of those moments, always. I don't what brings the episodes on, though lack of sleep during a week that I'm otherwise well-rested (it can't be a second or third night without sleep) seems to be a trigger.

I just finished the original paper. The difference between types of daydreaming is key, I think. By "daydreaming" they mean the default state. Usually, the default state is the control in imaging studies. They take snapshots of people resting or passively viewing and pictures of the brain engaged in a specific task, they subtract the default from the active for each subject to see which brain areas are specifically active during the task.

What these researchers found is that the pattern of amyloid plaque deposition in Alzheimer's seems to follow a very specific pattern that overlaps with the signature shape of default activity.


So, staring into space with a blank look is "daydreaming", while constructing blog-posts in one's head is not?

Actually, everything I write I compose in my head first, then sit down and quickly transcribe - that is why I took to blogging so much, as it saves my thoughts from being lost and forgotte - I get to save them online.

A little OT, but this from New Scientist:

Human tests near for Alzheimer's treatment

A nasal spray that could clear plaques from the brains of people with Alzheimer's will be tested in humans next year.

The spray stimulates brain cells called microglia to "eat" the protein plaques, which are thought to cause the disease. When tested in mice it reduced plaques by 83 per cent (The Journal of Clinical Investigation, DOI: 10.1172/JCI23241).

Previous attempts to develop a vaccine for Alzheimer's were halted when some of the volunteers developed potentially dangerous brain inflammation. But Howard Weiner and colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, discovered that the inflammation was accompanied by a dramatic clearing of plaques. "Sometimes inflammation is good," he says.

His team then showed that Alzheimer's mice treated to develop inflammation also cleared beta-amyloid from their brains. It discovered that the inflammation activated microglia, which then ate up the plaques.

This led the team to develop the nasal spray, which it hopes will safely activate microglia in humans.

Ya know.

I read about a study once of cloistered nuns, some of whom were contemplatives and some of whom taught. The nuns who taught got alzheimers at a hugely lessened rate. The hypothesis was that because they were faced with new situations and new learning constantly, their brains remained agile enough to forge new connections.

Why are these people assuming that the link is to daydreaming? It could just as easily be that the people who got the Alzheimers didn't daydream as much as the people who didn't. It doesn't sound as if they made any particular effort to figure that out.

First, the article says that the "bits" of the brain involved in daydreaming are t makes some of hose that are never given a rest. So, why can't we conclude that daydreaming is a result of unstoppable, or uncontrollable, brain activity?

We can't help it!

And, can we conclude that this activity makes certain people susceptible to Alzheimer's?

Now, we need to start writing the grant requests to study daydreaming in many different personality types, over many years as they grow toward old age and possible Alzheimers.

If worked correctly, this could become an entire Neurobiological Industry all by itself. And those who get the early grants will be so golden!

Also, fiction writers don't daydream, they sweat (at least the successful ones do)!

"BOGUS" the word that sprang to mind when I read these "findings". It calls to mind those Victorian doctors who saw masturbation as a great harm and devised painful traps around the scrotum to prevent nocturnal emissions.

As neuro-researchers know, parts of the brain have many functions. For example, sex and violence reside in the same part of the brain. Does this mean that sex causes violence or vice versa? I have not seen any credible study that says so.

Alzheimer's Disease is a physical illness. And it may be that daydreaming is the toothbrush that keeps people from having it. Many artists and writers would rise in protest to hear that their explorations into the strange worlds of the brain doom them to senility. And I believe their rage to be righteous.

All we know is that daydreaming and Alzheimer's Disease occur in the same part of the brain. Could it be that the loss of the daydreaming function is what characterizes Alzheimer's? Other studies have suggested that it is the curse of the unimaginative. So it may be that the boring and the narrow will be the ones who suffer.

Finally, let's consider the context: these are American researchers bearing American prejudices among which is the Calvinist idea that one should "not be idle". I suggest that the researchers' amazing jump from the simple fact of colocation to their dire speculation is a product of this. And as such, it is best ignored. Especially when your boss is using the factoid to give you a guilt trip or the powerful don't want you to come up with ideas to challenge their hegemony.

But then, as I mentally go over the biographies of 40 novelists who I like a great deal, I can't think of one who developed Alzheimer's.

The only one I can think of off the top of my head is science fiction writer Charles Beaumont, who also wrote some of the most memorable "Twilight Zone" episodes (my particular favorite by him is "Number 12 Looks Just Like You"). He got a really nasty early-onset form that killed him before he was 50, IIRC. But that form is sufficiently rare in itself that it's hard to put some kind of cause/effect to it.

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