Some call Alzheimer’s disease the greatest tragedy of the 21st century.
Tremendous research efforts have been dedicated to learning more about the causes and possible treatment approaches for this debilitating and devastating brain disease.
According to the American Brain Foundation, brain diseases affect the lives of one in six people, bringing the total number of people suffering from neurological disorders to one billion worldwide. Brain disease has many different forms, ranging from concussion to stroke, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, migraines, brain tumors, brain trauma or ALS, just to name a few.
A Deadly Disease
The most devastating and widespread brain disease, however, is dementia and its most common cause, Alzheimer’s disease. Based on data published by the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2020 more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
While the deaths caused by heart disease have decreased by 7.8% between the year 2000 and 2018, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 146% during the same time span. The growing numbers of people affected by this type of brain disease put a serious strain on the medical system as well as on families, resulting in high costs and enormous personal sacrifices required to take care of dementia patients in private and public care facilities.
In 2020, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia will cost the U.S. $305 billion USD. It is estimated that by 2050 these numbers will rise to $1.1 trillion USD.
The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.”
While dementia can have different origins, such as vascular or frontotemporal disorders, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among the senior population and can be described as a progressive, degenerative brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and ultimately leads to complete dependency of a person for basic activities of daily living.
The disease was first discovered in 1906 by Alois Alzheimer, MD, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, who treated a patient for an unusual mental illness that involved memory loss, language problems, mood swings, and loss of bodily functions, as well as unpredictable behavior, including aggressive outbursts.
During a post-mortem autopsy of that patient, he discovered unusual clumps (now known as amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles) in her brain tissues, pathological changes that are, together with the loss of connections between neurons in the brain, still the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
But even though the causes of this disease are not fully understood and many questions remain yet unanswered, new discoveries in the field of neuroscience and increasing evidence on the effectiveness of treatment modalities, such as CranioSacral Therapy, bring renewed hope to millions of people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The Great River of Life
The proper function of our brains is largely dependent on the effective and efficient exchange of nutrients and toxins between the tissues. The physiological system that is responsible for carrying out this role is called the CranioSacral System, a semi-hydraulic system that envelopes the brain and spinal cord and helps create, absorb and regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, a clear, colorless liquid that serves as a shock absorber for the central nervous system, but also circulates nutrients and chemicals filtered from the blood and removes waste products from the brain.
Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO, the father of Osteopathy, calls the cerebrospinal fluid “The Great River of Life in the Body” and describes it as the highest known element in the human body which abundant flow must be guaranteed in order for our bodies to stay healthy and fully functional.
The CranioSacral System was first described by osteopath John E. Upledger, DOO, OMM (1932-2012), who, based on his research at the University of Michigan, also developed CranioSacral Therapy, a gentle, non-invasive manual therapy that works with the CranioSacral Rhythm, the ebb and flow of the cerebrospinal fluid in the body, to detect and release restrictions in the body.
In a healthy adult, the daily turnover of cerebrospinal fluid lies between 600 and 800 ml. Upledger discovered that as we age, the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid decreases by as much as 50%, in part due to the aging process as well as inflammatory processes in the brain, head trauma or injury, accumulation of heavy metals, or other conditions.
Michael Morgan, LMT, CST-D, instructor at the Upledger Institute, took Upledger’s research a step further and discovered that in people with senile dementia, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid was actually decreased by 75% in comparison to a healthy adult. (Read “Craniosacral Therapy is Being Explored as a Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease,” By Michael Morgan.)
In his book, “Prevent Alzheimer’s in Just 10 Minutes a Day,” he explains that the decrease in the volume of cerebrospinal fluid actually leads to brains drying up during the aging process which results in an accumulation of toxins and restrictions in the brain, including the above-mentioned amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that are considered trademark signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
A reduced flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain therefore greatly diminishes the ability of our brains to function in healthy and effective ways. (For more information about Morgan’s work, visit preventingalzheimers.com.)
The Glymphatic System’s Role
In 2012, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Rochester discovered a cleansing system that rapidly drains waste products from the brain. (See kurzweilai.net/scientists-discover-previously-unknown-cleansing-system-in-brain.) They named this newfound system the “glymphatic system” due to its similarity to the lymphatic system but including the name reference to the so-called glial cells, non-neuronal brain cells that play a key part in managing the waste removal and regulation of the brain tissues.
Using a two-photon microscope, the researchers could demonstrate the existence of a pathway in the brain through which cerebrospinal fluid is efficiently circulated through every part of the brain. This new discovery disproved an old theory that stated the cerebrospinal fluid would only trickle slowly and steadily through the brain tissues.
The newly found glymphatic system has been shown to push large volumes of cerebrospinal fluid through the brain along specific pathways, clearing out extracellular solutes and ultimately eliminating waste products through the circulatory system.
Some of these waste products are called amyloid ß, a type of protein that is continuously produced and secreted from brain cells. (See “Scientists discover previously unknown cleansing system in the brain,” kurzweilai.net/scientists-discover-previously-unknown-cleansing-system-in-brain.) In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the pathways where these proteins are cleaned out are failing due to injury, inflammation or infection in the brain. As a consequence, buildups of amyloid ß clog up the space in between the brain cells, which eventually leads to the suffocation and death of neurons and the creation of dementia symptoms.
Taking these findings into account, the researchers conclude that an increase in the activity of the glymphatic system might help prevent amyloid depositions from building up or cleaning out already existing buildups in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
CST as a Promising Treatment
Even though the discovery of the glymphatic system happened fairly recently, the concept of a strong motion of cerebrospinal fluid through the central nervous system had already been described in the 1980s by Dr. Upledger. He developed the so-called Pressure-Stat Model by describing a system of production and absorption of cerebrospinal fluid under pressure within the meninges, the dural membranes encasing the brain and spinal cord.
Based on extensive research in a multidisciplinary team at Michigan State University, Upledger developed CranioSacral Techniques that focus on enhancing and restoring fluid movement within the brain and spinal cord to facilitate adequate flushing of accumulated waste products and, therefore, a detoxification not only in the brain but ultimately the whole body system.
According to Morgan, there are five ways in which CranioSacral Therapy can benefit patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Based on his research and work with the senior population, he has found that CranioSacral Therapy works by:
1. Increasing the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, which supports the removal of waste products and helps improve brain function
2. Lowering sympathetic tone to encourage relaxation and reduction of stress levels so the body is better equipped to stay healthy
3. Reducing inflammation through the body and brain by assisting the immune system
4. Facilitating recovery from brain trauma, injury and concussion
5. Improving overall memory and brain function
Still Point Research
In a research study conducted by LA Gerdner and MB Zimmerman, “Craniosacral still point technique: exploring the effects in individuals with dementia” (Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 2008), the effectiveness of one specific CranioSacral technique, the still point, on individuals with dementia was explored.
Over a period of six weeks, patients suffering from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease and residing in nursing homes were administered the Still Point Technique for a duration of 5-10 minutes each day at the same time of the day. The evaluation focused on changes in behavior, agitation, memory and cognition. Data was collected before and during as well as after the treatment.
The results showed clinically and statistically significant changes in all above-mentioned categories. The improvements observed in the patients continued after the closure of the study and were confirmed by caregivers, including family members and nursing staff. Some clients began to recognize their relatives and caregivers and, in some cases, improved speech abilities and enhanced independence in activities of daily living were observed.
More Studies are Needed
Do Alzheimer’s specialists believe in the benefits of CST? Do they refer to CST practitioners? This is a difficult question to answer. CranioSacral Therapy works from a different paradigm than allopathic medicine, as does most complementary and alternative medicine.
Most of the data is at this point still collected through case studies and personal observations with clients. More studies need to be conducted to understand the effectiveness of CST for the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s on a larger scale so we can come to more precise conclusions about if and how CST can be valuable for this population.
Even though further studies need to be conducted to understand the effectiveness of CranioSacral Therapy in the prevention and treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the results of this study as well as the work of Morgan within the senior population are promising to patients, families and caregivers.
With gentle yet very powerful and effective techniques, CranioSacral Therapy offers a safe and non-invasive approach that can potentially change the lives of many who are suffering from different varieties of brain diseases, and especially provide valuable tools to help combat the increasing numbers of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in our societies.
About the Author:
Andrea Winzer, M.Sc., LMT, BCTMB, holds a master’s degree in ecology and is a board certified massage and bodywork therapist. She practices CranioSacral Therapy and offers a variety of holistic treatment modalities with a focus on the integration of body-mind-spirit, release of physical and emotional trauma from the body, and supporting mental health therapies through trauma-sensitive bodywork. She wrote this article on behalf of the Massage Therapy Foundation.