Do I visit my youngest sister in what’s left of the day? Or catch the last part of Sunday afternoon on the New England beach?
In terms of preference, it’s never a toss up. Austine is a complete zombie, too disabled to have the most rudimentary conversation. The beach is nice.
Yet today I bring joyous news for once: A “cure” just might be at hand! Thanks to a pair of Texas researchers, reprogrammed stem cells promise a permanent fix, something the meds have never done.
It’s the best news since the hope—false as it turned out—that came with the unscrambling of the human gene code in the mid nineteen nineties.
This stem cell transplant breakthrough has been overlooked in the hue and cry over the Washington Naval Yard shooting by paranoid schizophrenic Aaron Alexis, a story that gets the full 60 Minutes treatment tonight.
“You can essentially fix the problem,” Dr. Daniel Lodge, the senior author of the University of Texas School of Medicine study, declared.
“Ultimately, if this is translated to humans, we want to reprogram a patient’s own cells and use them,” he said of the results found in rats.
In a nice twist, the idea sprang from a graduate student, Stephanie Perez, who noticed that brain injections of reprogrammed cells had worked for motor deficits.
“The students have journal club, and somebody had done a similar experiment to restore motor deficits and had good results,” Perez explained.
“We thought, why can’t we use it for schizophrenia and have good results, and so far we have.”
After meeting with other students, Perez brought the idea to Lodge.
Amidst all the gloom and doom about mass murder at the hands of Aaron Alexis, and threats of mass incarceration at the hands of the NRA, the breakthrough comes just in the nick of time.
Many a slip betwixt cup and lip, as they say, but it is a timely reminder that the light of open-minded inquiry shines into the darkest corners where this illness is draped in shame and fear.
Maybe society is finally hitting bottom with severe mental illness? If so, then a 60 Minutes feature airing tonight is a marking of that bottom.
I won’t quibble with the 60 Minutes piece. It’s true that people with schizophrenia commit their fair share of the unpredictable acts of mass murder, as Dr. E. Fuller Torrey points out.
However, I hope they also note that they are no more violent than the average person–and account for only one percent of all gun attacks–and that you’re ten times as likely to be gunned down by a drunk. Admittedly what’s unfathomable is the randomness of these acts of violence.
When the history of mental illness gets written, we might look back on these days as the Dark Ages of massive incarceration in prison cells not treatment centers. And we might also look back on Stephanie Perez as the Texas lone star that shone brightly in the darkest, blood-stained days this month.
She and Dr. Lodge simply biopsied tissue from rat fetuses, isolated cells from the tissue, and injected the cells into a brain center called the hippocampus. Rats treated with the transplanted cells had their hippocampal and dopamine functions fully restored.
Evidently stem cells are able to become different types of cells, and in this case interneurons were chosen. Unlike medications, Lodge said, transplantation of interneurons has the potential to be a permanent fix.
This is the best piece of news since they unscrambled the human genome in the mid 1990s. In the decade that followed we learned that the condition results from dozens of genes in countless combinations, none necessary nor sufficient alone to cause the disorder, and that a genetic solution could be decades away, if ever.
And now comes this and I hope it’s true mainly for Austine’s sake. For my sister Michelle too, but she suffers much less than Austine.
Pleasant and fun, never complaining even when hearing voices, an experience that would send other people around the bend, Chelle possesses a rare charm you notice as soon as you meet her.
She and Elaine and Seanna, the oldest three, go shopping a lot on weekends. They still all have their days of beauty. I worry less about her.
Not so with sad Austine. These days she flatly refuses to leave her group home. She can’t say why she won’t leave. She doesn’t speak. Once the life of the party, she’s been a silent, frozen husk of herself for thirty five years.
I can’t tell her today about this stem-cell breakthrough. If I mentioned it or this blog or the book I wrote or that we’ve a black president, a thing called the Internet or Nine Eleven, she couldn’t take it on board. She would only stare back at me, dead eyed and buried deep in her cognitive impairment.
To me as her brother there’s something about her schizophrenia that’s more intense than any other case I’ve seen. To visit her is to confront the inescapable fact of her aloneness in her madness—and your own inability to pull her out of it.
And that’s the real deal here. That’s why I’m long overdue for a visit. For once, today, I’m going in a great mood because I’m able to imagine a better Austine.
I’m hopping that Red Line and surfing the subway with some rare pep in my step and the hope that I might one day have my best friend back.
So if the University of Texas is looking for volunteers, look no further than right here.
Depressed woman image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 30 Sep 2013