LeBlanc: Alzheimer's Disease & Brain Function Deterioration

Mar 16, 2017

Brian LeBlanc of Pensacola was first diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s in 2014, when he was just 54 years old. When WUWF last checked in, LeBlanc shared the fear and anxiety he felt in the past month, when he temporarily lost his ability to speak. Now, we have more of Sandra Averhart’s recent conversation with LeBlanc and UWF Biology professor Dr. Rodney Guttmann, focusing on the medical aspect of the incident and how it relates to Alzheimer’s.

We begin with what LeBlanc’s doctors said about what may have caused his short-term inability to speak.

LeBlanc explains, “When they looked at my MRI, they found a small brain hemorrhage in the left frontal lobe of my brain, which from what I understand is where your speech comes from. Is that correct Rodney?"

Dr. Guttmann concurred, "That’s right, so you had an aphasia, it’s in the Broca’s area. It’s part of language."

LeBlanc was told that as his Alzheimer’s progression goes along, the amyloid plaques and tangles are building up and the first thing that it affects is the hippocampus, which is important for short-term memory.

"They said, we’ve never seen this before. That’s what they kept on saying and I saw three different doctors, and all three of them echoed that," LeBlanc said.

Mononuclear phagocytes in Alzheimer’s disease
Credit By David Gate, Kavon Rezai-Zadeh,Dominique Jodry, Altan Rentsendorj, Terrence Town and Pietro Martinez. [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Guttmann explained, “So, it’s on the left side and that’s where a lot of Alzheimer’s pathology is, in the left hemisphere. That Broca’s Area is important for language. So, as scientists learn more then you’re able to understand more about the processes taking place, there's something called Primary Progressive Aphasia. In the last 5-6 years there’s been a lot of effort to try to understand that better. And, interestingly, people who have PPA, about 40 percent had underlying Alzheimer’s disease. "

According to Dr. Guttmann, we think about Alzheimer’s classically as a memory deficit. And, while researchers are finding that incidents of aphasia involving language problems, such as LeBlanc describes, can happen as a result of Alzheimer’s, Guttmann says it’s not typical.

“Let me ask you this question, though. Isn’t the aphasia more predominant in someone with Louis Body or Parkinson’s?" asked LeBlanc.

"You know," Dr. Guttmann replied, "as we say ‘when you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s disease, you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s disease.You know there is speech and there is language. Speech is the vocalization, so some people, you know kids with Autism might have a speech problem, their muscles can’t move. So imagine if you had paralysis in the muscles to move your mouth, you wouldn’t have a language problem, you’d have a speech problem, you can’t make the words form versus what you had was a language deficit because you had cognitive ability, sending emails and all...You see it with other forms...It can happen in cases like this; it is atypical."

Two-and-a-half years after his initial diagnosis with early on-set Alzheimer’s, LeBlanc is still considered to be in the mild stage of the disease. And, Dr. Guttmann believes that it could be years before he’s expected to suffer a significant or permanent loss of language due to Alzheimer’s. That’s good news, but there’s no certainty. And, just a few weeks after his incident, it’s little comfort for LeBlanc.

"I wake up every morning, open my eyes and I say something just to make sure I can talk that day. And, it’s kind of a strange thing now, because I wake up and I don’t know if I’m able to talk or if I’m not. Did it come back or did it remain the same. And, I’m trying not to stress too much about that."

When LeBlanc is able to talk, Guttman says his advocacy is invaluable. He says data over the last few years have shown that the rates of dementia are declining in people over 65, down from an estimate of 12 percent to about nine percent.

"Part of it is believed to be,  that people are becoming more educated about Alzheimer’s disease thanks to work that people like you [LeBlanc] do and others, that by raising awareness people are taking better care of themselves. They’re eating right and exercising and staying socially engaged and doing those psycho-social things that we’ve been talking about for years that statistically suggest they decrease your likelihood of having Alzheimer’s disease." said Dr. Guttmann.

But, while there’s been a downward trend, Guttman says there are still a lot of people on this journey with LeBlanc. Just considering population figures, he says the numbers suggest that in Escambia County alone, there are about 5,000 people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and about 100 of those have early on-set Alzheimer’s.

LeBlanc says talking about Alzheimer’s is really a win-win, helping to keep him engaged and motivated, while he’s reaching out to others.

"When I’m talking to two or 2,000, if I’m helping at least one person in that crowd then I’ve done my job."