Aug 8, 2011

Alzheimer's and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

“You better not create any super intelligent Alzheimer’s mice that want to take over the world.”
By Max Wallack
Alzheimer's Reading Room

I bet, at first look, it seems strange for me to be writing about the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room. However, after seeing this movie, not only do I think it is one of the best movies I have ever seen, I think it is an amazing social commentary about Alzheimer’s disease.

The story line is about a geneticist who was doing research on a drug for Alzheimer’s disease. The drug contained a virus that he was testing on chimps. One chimp showed a particularly good response to the drug, and she was singled out to be worked with. Her intelligence increased dramatically.

Then, we see the scientist at home. He is taking care of his father who has Alzheimer’s disease. The portrayal of the father is extremely realistic. His is quite advanced in the disease and has a hired caregiver at home when the geneticist is at work. We see the father lash out in frustration at the hired help, who then quits her job.

Back at the lab, the star chimp, “Bright Eyes,” is forced out of her room, and suddenly becomes very agitated and destructive. There is much havoc in the lab, and Bright Eyes is killed. Back in her room, the geneticist finds a tiny, newborn chimp, and he realizes that Bright Eyes had reacted so wildly because she had been forced to separate from her newborn.

The CEO of the company orders the study stopped, and he orders all the chimps who have been given the virus to be killed. The CEO no longer wants to continue the study. He is afraid they will be sued because the chimp went wild. All the chimps are killed, but the geneticist brings the newborn home with him and presents it as a gift to his father.

The father is delighted, and we get to see how caring for the baby chimp actually becomes very meaningful to the dad’s life. Like many Alzheimer’s patients, he becomes alive when he has something that he is responsible for.

The geneticist is distraught that his research is put aside after he has spent five years on the preparation of his virus, ALZ 112. His dad is progressing with Alzheimer’s to severe stages. The geneticist decides to inject the virus into his dad.

There is a remarkable change. After a few weeks, his dad returns to his cognitive former self. He even expresses, “I am not sick, anymore.” He even appears to play the piano better than he ever had.

Meanwhile, the infant chimp, now named Caesar, is growing. His early intelligence is hard to miss. By the age of three years old, he is more intelligent than a human three-year-old. He is able to learn sign language. It is obvious he has inherited or contracted the virus from his mom.

After about five years, the father’s symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to reappear, and his deterioration is rapid. The geneticist conducts tests and realizes that his dad is producing antibiodies to the virus. He sets out to create another, stronger virus, ALZ 113, that can help his dad.

At one point, we see the father wander out of the house and get into a car that a neighbor has left the keys in. It’s not a good situation, but it’s one we have become familiar hearing about. The neighbor comes out and angrily pulls the dad out of the car as Caesar watches.

Caesar is very protective and runs to help the father. The chimp bites the neighbor’s finger, and animal protection is called. Against the geneticist’s will, Caesar is removed from his home and placed in a zoo-type refuge.

We get to see a lot of Caesar in that setting. It, to me, appeared like what it must feel like to be an Alzheimer’s patient in a locked ward. Caesar is smart enough to know how bad things are for him. He is empathetic with the other apes who are suffering.

The refuge operates like the nightmare nursing facilities of the past. Everything out front is cheery for visitors, and caged-up and horrific when the visitors are gone.

Meanwhile, the scientist has succeeded in producing ALZ 113, which he thinks will work. He tries to get the CEO to resume testing in chimps. The CEO is adamantly opposed to the drug. Only when the scientist says that the drug has potential to increase intelligence in “normal” people does the CEO become interested. It is a sad social commentary. The CEO was unwilling to risk a lawsuit to return Alzheimer’s patients to normal intelligence, but when he thought he would make a fortune with a drug that boosted normal intelligence, he was willing to go full speed ahead.

When the geneticist’s dad becomes very ill, he brings home the ALZ 113, with the intention of injecting his dad. His dad, on his deathbed, refuses the injection. He knows it’s his time. The dad dies, and the geneticist places the ALZ 113 drug in his refrigerator.

Meanwhile, Caesar is becoming more and more distressed with the horrendous treatment of his fellow apes. He breaks out, visits the geneticist’s home, and steals the vials of ALZ 113. Caesar brings them back to the refuge, where he doses all the apes with the ALZ 113.

After that point, the movie becomes an action movie of humans vs very smart apes.

I know that most people will comment on the animation and computer graphics of this movie. They are, indeed, unbelievably fantastic. The ape movements were realistic. One scene, where the apes were playing with an oil can, was right out of a Jane Goodall film.

What I found most amazing was the realism about Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s research that was in the movie. The dad with Alzheimer’s was depicted painfully accurately. The resistance on the part of the imagined pharmaceutical company to producing something that would only help Alzheimer’s patients and could expose them to a lawsuit, felt all too real.

I have just a few more comments. I wonder whether the fact that Charlton Heston, the star of the first “Planet of the Ape” movie, who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, had an impact on the production this movie.

I suspect that this movie will become a good beginning for very many ethics discussion and courses for scientists.

My own Alzheimer’s mice will be arriving in my lab this week. At one point during the movie my grandmother leaned over and whispered to me, “You better not create any super intelligent Alzheimer’s mice that want to take over the world.”

No, but I’d sure like to develop that virus that gives another five healthy years to Alzheimer’s patients.

Max Wallack is a student at Boston University Academy. His great grandmother, Gertrude, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. PTR is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

Original content Max Wallack, the Alzheimer's Reading Room