For the Birds

It’s astonishing that the brain can have memories without making conscious requests to our cells. How the stimulus can travel down the axon of the synapse like a meteorite flying across the sky; sending the message to release the neurotransmitters from the vesicles across the gap to be caught and processed by the receptors. All to remember for a second. I was sitting in the kitchen with my grandparents and I watched my grandfather’s face fall as my grandma asked me, for the third time, whether or not I’d had lunch yet.

My mother’s mother began showing signs of dementia at eighty-one. She is sociable, maternal, and has been married for sixty-two years. Now, she cannot remember that my cousin moved back to New York from Florida or the day of the week. My grandfather’s eyes welled with tears as she repeated herself and it became hard for me to comprehend how we can be so in touch with our emotions—so sure of what makes us feel sad or feel lost, yet so unaware of how our brains are actually working. I stared at her wispy blond hair wondering what exactly was happening under her skull.

“Epigenetics” is the study of the changes to our genetic information that occur throughout our lives. DNA methylation is an example of this—a process which adds material to and removes it from our DNA sequences, changing their expression and ultimately the function of the cell, temporarily. The result looks like a normal coiled strand of DNA—base pairs linked in the middle and a spiral staircase formation—but with ‘methyl groups’ sitting on the outside of specific bases. It’s sort of like the railing of a staircase around the holidays; laced artfully with holly clinging to certain places, changing the appearance and inevitably, the function. All of our cells do this naturally to produce the proteins and hormones they need to carry out daily processes, but the process also occurs in reaction to conditions we are exposed to throughout our lives. Age is a huge part of the cause. New research identifies Alzheimer’s and Dementia as the results of the alterations initiated by plaque build-ups associated with these diseases.

Later that night, I sat under the stars with my grandma and we talked about my mother’s childhood. She told me stories of her children: the one about my mom locked in the screened-in-porch with the bat, my uncle breaking his leg putting on his pajamas, and their road-trips to the Grand Canyon. She was coherent and she was pleasant. Between stories she kept saying, “Would you look at that moon tonight?”

I did look at the moon each time and with the third mention of it I began to feel crazy. I didn’t understand why she remembered the curtains in her old house on eighty-sixth street but couldn’t remember the syllables she had uttered moments before.

One of the most profound things to me is how rarely we question the biology in our world; how rarely we appreciate our ability to remember whether we took our vitamins, or how often we overlook the astonishing capacity of the synapses in our brains to perform tasks like boiling pasta water. I’ve become obsessed with filling the scientific gaps. I exist unable to get over how much we don’t know and how often we forget we don’t know all of it.

In the brain, when the plaque material builds up it modifies the expression of proteins—the things that do our cells’ work like unwinding the DNA helix or providing the energy to twitch our foot ever so slightly. When the fluid that would normally deteriorate this plaque runs dry, the deterioration becomes cyclic. Our synapses fail to generate the proper instructions. With this fluid material at low levels, the build-up threatens the memory. Why her? Their house isn’t fun anymore.

My grandfather, an Italian born in the twenties, has had to learn how to manage a lifestyle previously spoiled by spaghetti and meatballs and socks laid out for him. They are still in love but he resents his life. Sitting in their kitchen, eating defrosted homemade apple pie, I see pictures of them from their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s plastered on every square inch of wall space surrounding the table. I think about how temporary everything is. There won’t ever be a transcript of their conversations or dates, there won’t ever be a record of their relationship’s quirks, and now there won’t ever be a person in his life who can ever comprehend every detail–the experience of selling the company, watching their son be diagnosed with MS, or the nights they spent in Venice, Paris, and Copenhagen. I know all of this is true for everyone, but I don’t know how he accepts that.

My grandmother cries out an old Italian proverb as she maneuvers herself up from the kitchen chair. “Did I ever tell you what that means?” Yes, I think, ,getting old is for the birds. I shake my head no and let her tell me again.

Francesca Longo
Age 17, Grade 12
Berkeley Carroll School
Gold Key

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