8 May 2009. For the past two years, HBO’s award-winning documentary team has been filming and editing a massive project on Alzheimer disease, and this Sunday, it will start going live on television and online. Sheila Nevins, who heads HBO’s documentary division, and Maria Shriver, First Lady of California and an author and journalist herself, jointly oversaw a multimedia project that aims to raise awareness of AD among the general public and specialty audiences from policy makers to funders, from primary care physicians to neighbors and friends.
Most everyone who is awake in the U.S. this week will know by now that the series is coming, as HBO and the project sponsors—The Alzheimer’s Association, the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, and the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Alzheimer’s Initiative—have launched a broad-based national publicity campaign. Today alone, full-page ads are running in the country’s major newspapers, and media coverage has picked up (e.g., New York Times, San Diego Union-Tribune) while HBO is touring the country for regional screenings. Shriver is giving interviews all week to promote the project, part of which is inspired by a children’s book Shriver wrote after her father, Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with the disease in 2003 (see, e.g., Times Magazine). But to those Alzforum readers who were away, checked out from goings-on thanks to those Challenge grant deadlines, or who live abroad, word of the project may still be news.
Produced by John Hoffman, who won accolades for his prior HBO documentary on addiction, HBO’s The Alzheimer’s Project was designed in close collaboration with scientists at the National Institute on Aging. Four feature-length movies form its core:
- The Memory Loss Tapes follows seven people as their dementia advances agonizingly.
- Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? features Shriver; it serves to help children and young teenagers cope with the disease in their relatives.
- The two-part Momentum in Science tells a story of scientific progress in understanding the underlying processes of AD.
- A moving portrait of five families, Caregivers, chronicles the sacrifices, struggles, and successes of people who care for a loved one who descends into dementia.
Besides being broadcast on HBO’s main service (see http://www.hbo.com/alzheimers/the-films.html for schedules), the films will also stream off the HBO website and be available on HBO On Demand.
Visiting the labs of 25 research groups over a period of six months, HBO shot more than 500 hours of footage for the project, and only a small fraction made it into these four feature films. There was much more worthwhile material, however, and the editors, led by Hoffman and Matt Heineman, sliced some of it into two separate packages. One is the Supplementary Series, a set of 15 short films geared toward a general audience. Anyone can freely stream them off HBO’s website starting 10 May. Alzforum readers will see some familiar faces (Dennis Selkoe, Suzanne Craft, Richard Hodes, Gerry Schellenberg, Steve DeKosky, Randy Bateman, and many others). They will also “meet” families with autosomal-dominant early-onset AD (the DeMoes of North Dakota) and late-onset AD (the Nanney-Felts of Tennessee), who contribute so much to AD research but whom most bench scientists never have a chance to meet. Beyond that, HBO is currently editing a further 18 short films that will be simpler in their cinematographic presentation and geared toward a scientific audience. Alzforum will host these 18 films as they become available. HBO offers for sale a companion book, titled The Alzheimer’s Project: Momentum in Science, and published by Public Affairs, as well as a DVD set. Parts of the project will be available as HBO podcasts, and the HBO channel on YouTube.
Bench scientists around the world who labor daily to advance the understanding of this disease may enjoy seeing some of their colleagues featured in this multi-platform series. More importantly, the series affords them a rare view of the real, human calamity and the heartrending sadness behind the disease they are fighting with gels, pipettes, and microarrays. As a sharp and intellectual scientist, do you really know what it’s like to slowly lose your mind? The first film shows that. Readers who are not researchers may take solace in seeing that the disease that affects them so deeply is slowly giving way to broad-based scientific investigation. This is television well worth the time. Watch it, and let us know what you think.—Gabrielle Strobel.