Last updated date: 28-Apr-2023

Originally Written in English

Robin Williams and his struggle with Lewy body dementia

  • Dementia

  • General Health

  • Lewy body dementia

Robin McLaurin Williams, an accomplished actor who played many comedic roles in numerous blockbuster movies, committed suicide on August 11, 2014, at age 63 by hanging himself at his home in Paradise Cay, California. He was known for his excellent improvisational skills and a wide variety of memorable voices and is often regarded as one of the best comedians of all time. Much of the media initially surmised the cause was a severe form of depression at the time of the fatal event, but an official autopsy revealed the cause to be Lew body dementia (“LBD”), also known as dementia with Lewy bodies, which is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's disease. Protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory and movement.

According to the NIH (part of the US Department of Health & Human Services), Lewy body dementia or “LBD” is a disease associated with abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. These deposits, called Lewy bodies, affect chemicals in the brain which can lead to problems with thinking, movement, behavior, and mood. Lewy body dementia is one of the most common causes of dementia. Diagnosing LBD can be difficult as early Lewy body dementia symptoms are often similar with symptoms found in other brain diseases like Alzheimer's or in psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Also, Lewy body dementia can occur alone or in conjunction with other brain disorders. There are two variations of LBD—dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) and Parkinson's disease dementia. While the early signs differ, over time, people with dementia with Lewy bodies or Parkinson's disease dementia may develop similar symptoms.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease, which affects more than 1 million individuals in the United States alone. Lewy body dementia typically begins at age 50 or older (more often with men than women), although it can occur at a younger age. Symptoms start slowly but worsen over time. The disease lasts an average of 5 to 8 years from the time of diagnosis to death, but the time span can range from 2 to 20 years. How quickly symptoms worsen varies greatly depending on the overall health, age, and severity of symptoms.

In the early stages of Lewy body dementia, symptoms can be mild, and people can function fairly normally. As the disease advances, people with LBD require more help due to a decline in thinking and movement abilities. In the later stages of the disease, they often depend entirely on others for assistance and care. While there is no cure for the disease currently, some Lewy body dementia symptoms may be alleviated with treatment. Eventually, research may yield a cure or better treatment for the disease.

Lewy bodies are named for Dr. Friederich Lewy, a German neurologist. In 1912, he discovered abnormal protein deposits that disrupt the brain's normal functioning in people with Parkinson's disease. These abnormal deposits are now called "Lewy bodies."

Lewy bodies are made of a protein called alpha-synuclein. In a healthy brain, alpha-synuclein plays a number of important roles in neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, especially at synapses, where brain cells communicate with each other. In people with Lewy body dementia, alpha-synuclein forms into clumps inside neurons, starting in areas of the brain that control aspects of memory and movement. This process causes neurons to work unreliably and, eventually, to die. The activities of certain brain chemicals are also affected, resulting in widespread damage to specific brain regions and a decline in abilities affected by those damaged brain regions.

Lewy bodies affect several different brain regions including:

  • The cerebral cortex, which controls many functions, including information processing, perception, thought, and language
  • The limbic cortex, which plays a major role in emotions and behavior
  • The hippocampus, which is essential to forming new memories
  • The midbrain and basal ganglia, which are involved in movement
  • The brain stem, which is important in regulating sleep and maintaining alertness
  • Brain regions important in recognizing smells (olfactory pathways)

While Lewy body dementia currently cannot be prevented or cured, some symptoms may respond to treatment for a period of time. A comprehensive treatment plan may involve medications, physical and other types of therapy, and counseling. Changes to make the home safer, equipment to make routine life easier, and social support are also important.

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