Trouble in Mind Print
Written by Mary Guiden   
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Trouble in Mind
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UW researchers are trying to untangle the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease before it reaches epidemic proportions.

Helen Knudson Pulsifer, ’50, was a person who was “clearly in charge.” She had to be. As executive director of the King County Bar Association, she kept track of about 4,100 members, running a staff of 25 with a budget of about $1.5 million.

During the 1980s, she worked with everyone from Federal Judge William Dwyer, ’51, to William H. Gates Sr., ’49, ’50. “Helen was always dealing with the board of trustees and a set of officers who were very busy, very prominent attorneys in town. She had lots of energy, lots of creativity and lots of demands on her time,” says attorney Linda Strout, ’69, who worked closely with Pulsifer in the bar association’s young lawyers division.

Helen Knudson Pulsifer
Helen Knudson Pulsifer, '50. Photo by Kathy Sauber.
But near the end of that decade, family and co-workers started noticing a change in Pulsifer. She was due at someone’s house for dinner, and she’d forget to show up. “When she was 60 or so, she started getting ‘drifty,’ ” says daughter Lindsay Pulsifer, ’07.

Gradually, it got to the point where Pulsifer was driving and she’d get lost, sometimes cruising around the city until she figured out where she was. She would become embarrassed when it dawned on her that she didn’t know where she was going.

Pulsifer either repeatedly lost her credit cards or used them to order useless items from a catalog. Sometimes she would order two of the same item, forgetting she had already purchased one. “It became this family joke,” says Lindsay. “Someone would get a salsa maker two years in a row. We couldn’t figure out what she was thinking, but then to get two of them?” The final straw was when Pulsifer ordered around $1,800 worth of merchandise in one day.

Pulsifer’s children—Lindsay, Luke, Dave and Janet—had helped with her health care for years and watched her overcome a bout with colon cancer. In 2000, doctors diagnosed mild dementia. Two years later, they said her “drifty” behavior was now Alzheimer’s disease. “She’s a person who was used to being mentally agile and able to consider complex topics,” says Lindsay. “It compounds the tragedy when she recognizes she’s not able to think that way.”

Gail Li
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America estimates that five million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number may reach 16 million, an epidemic of suffering.

A brain disorder first identified in 1906, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities. The condition causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, and it is not a normal part of aging.

The destruction and death of nerve cells in the brain cause memory failure, personality changes and other symptoms. Plaques, or deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid, build up in the spaces between nerve cells. Tangles, or twisted fibers of another protein called tau, accumulate inside cells.

The plaques and tangles first form in areas that control memory. They gradually spread to other areas, eventually affecting most of the brain. Autopsies show that most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age, but those with Alzheimer’s tend to develop far more. Scientists do not yet know exactly what role plaques and tangles play, but most believe that they block communication among nerve cells, disrupting processes the cells need to survive.