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'Washing' the brain free of Alzheimer's disease

Fletcher Barnes can't remember when he started playing the sax, because of mild Alzheimer's disease.  

From Rhonda Rowland
CNN Medical Unit

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Seventy-two year old Fletcher Barnes is multi-talented. He shoots about a 90 on the golf course and plays the saxophone.

But remembering when he started playing the sax is another story. His memory fails him but his wife steps in. He's played since high school, she says.

What about short-term memory, like what he had for lunch that day?

"I had lettuce," Barnes answered. "I remember eating all of my lettuce. But I forgot what was on the lettuce."

This is what it's like to live with mild Alzheimer's disease.

"It's frustrating really, sometimes. But yet I do most anything that I want to do," says Barnes.

Surgery to drain toxin buildup from around the brain is among the newest experimental therapies to slow down memory loss from Alzheimer's disease. CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports. (June 24)

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And that's how he'd like things to stay. So that's why he's taking his chances on a new, experimental therapy called cognishunt. It's designed to essentially "wash the brain" of Alzheimer's toxins.

Barnes is looking forward to the experiment, but his family knows it won't be a cure.

"Just the procedure itself will be successful because they'll learn from this procedure -- good or bad," says his son Bobby Barnes.

This is how it works: A shunt -- or a type of drain -- is implanted in the brain to divert spinal fluid, which bathes the brain, into the abdominal cavity.

"There is something special about Alzheimer's disease where the drainage is almost cut in half. Almost like the pipes are backed up," says Dr. Allan Levey of Emory University in Atlanta.

With the pipes being backed up, researchers think toxins stagnate in the brain. So the idea is to wash out the toxins with the shunt and slow down memory loss.

The procedure sounds easy. After all, doctors have been using shunts for other medical conditions for years.

Other Alzheimer's researchers say the procedure is risky. It is brain surgery and -- so far -- there's just one small study suggesting it might help Alzheimer's patients.

It will take about two years for doctors to find out if the experiment on Barnes has worked.

"There certainly are skeptics and they're going to remain skeptics," says Levey. "The more ideas that get tested, the more likely we are to find a cure."


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