Fri, Jul 16, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Japan embraces Alzheimer's therapy

REUTERS , SENDAI, JAPAN

Sachiko Murase is a vastly changed woman. A year ago, Alzheimer's disease was so advanced in her that she could hardly recognize a pencil. Now, after having an increasingly popular treatment in Japan called Learning Therapy, her once blank expression is punctuated with occasional smiles.

"You see it's not only me. We're all having fun," said a beaming Murase, 83, at a nursing home in the city of Sendai, 300km north of Tokyo.

Alzheimer's, a brain disease whose causes are not fully understood, can start with mild forgetfulness but gradually ravages the memory and makes it hard to think and use language.

Murase is one of an estimated 1.5 million afflicted among the 24 million Japanese over the age of 65.

not a cure

She is not cured of the disease, however, and no one is pretending to be able to turn back the clock.

But thanks to methods developed by Ryuta Kawashima of Tohoku University in Sendai and backed up by an army of volunteers and textbooks from Kumon Institute of Education -- Japan's largest private education company -- she has regained an ability to communicate and interact with people.

The Learning Therapy method consists of meeting regularly in classes to perform simple calculations and read aloud passages from essays or novels.

Advocates say it works like a mental exercise to rehabilitate the frontal cortex, part of the brain thought to be important for higher-level functions, memory, reasoning and judgment.

According to Kawashima, who began his research in the Sendai nursing home, a majority of Alzheimer's patients who regularly performed these simple tasks showed improvements in their scores in a test used to determine the severity of Alzheimer's.

Even those who did not improve saw little or no deterioration in their mental state during the time they were tested, he said.

While a range of remedies from crossword puzzles to berries has been claimed to help prevent Alzheimer's, Kawashima says this is a full treatment that has been thoroughly researched with a salvo of medical tests.

For staff at the Evergreen nursing home, the improvements have been very noticeable.

behavioral problems

"In the past we used to have many behavioral problems because many of our patients had severe symptoms," nurse Rika Murakami said as she checked responses from one of the elderly women attending a recent session.

"But what we've seen since is that they've begun smiling more and many have become more serene," she said.

prevention

But the course is far from guaranteeing a full recovery, and the spotlight remains on prevention.

"Even after three years we found that there was no way we could return them to their old selves," Kawashima said.

"So the next step then was to think about prevention," Kawashima said.

Thus began courses for healthy and less elderly seniors.

These experimental classes began in Sendai, where twice a week some 40 people aged 70 and over gather at a local school to perform tasks that are similar to but slightly more difficult than those done in the nursing home.

"The course would probably be easy even for my grandchildren," grumbled one participant, Takao Kumagaya, 74.

"But that's OK. That's how it should be," he said.

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