THE FLUX ICE CREAM PROJECT
My Uber driver pulled up with a perplexed look on his face. He popped the trunk with zero chance of emerging from his seat, so I hoisted the enormous box onto the fender of his tiny Prius.
A good friend had bestowed on me a wonderful piece of Italian machinery. A graceful blend of high-grade stainless steel, refrigerant coils and paddles built to incorporate the perfect amount of air ( yes all ice cream contains air).
The Lello ice cream machine sits along side other Italian luxury brands Ferrari and Gucci, but is so much better. Can a Ferrari comfort you when Covid19 forces the closure of your relatively new rehabilitation clinic? Hardly. Can a pair of Gucci loafers joyously carry through Netflix’s Tiger King? Not a chance.
BACK AT THE OFFICE
A few years back a sixtysomething year old patient showed up at the clinic in distress, but not from any immediate health threat. This was the reverse. He was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment; the early precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. He knew he had it. His wife knew he had it. Yet hearing the diagnosis from the doctor made it all the more real.
The disease starts slowly, as it had already done, “ Oops I forgot to get milk,” and “ darn I forgot about that meeting.”
Then, in a time frame that cannot be predetermined the disease morphs from, “honey where did I put my keys?” to “ honey what are these keys for?”
That is the stage that causes real fear. It is next to impossible to reverse the dreadful combination of plaques and tangles proliferating through the brain.
Our goal was never going to be “Cure.” There is no cure. Alzheimer’s disease with its specific pathologic process continues to defeat scientists and doctors. Drugs today are no better than they were a couple decades ago and that isn’t changing anytime soon.
Our goal was doing whatever was humanly possible to slow the progression of the disease.
His 16 year-old daughters wedding someday - win! His 25th wedding anniversary - win! Visiting Michelangelo’s David in Florence - win!
We often mess about with memory in clinic. Flipping through old photo albums, recollecting stories from the past; and food. Food plays a pivotal role in connecting the present with the past and we all know it.
The smell of a ripe fig instantly transports me back to a child playing in my grandparents yard. For some it’s an apple pie, others a burger, but its always something.
Scientists have known for a long time that the main area in the brain that registers smell (olfactory bulb ) is close to an area that holds onto memory, the hippocampus.
Each time you smell something, odour molecules attach to cells ( olfactory receptors ) at the back of your nose. Those receptors convert that information into an “odour map” in the olfactory bulb. Then, your olfactory bulb contains these miraculous circuits ( synaptic microcircuits) which literally extracts valuable information from the map and sends it for content specific MEMORY representation. Wait, it gets better…
Normally, with your other senses specific information must pass through a relay station deep in your brain called the Thalamus. Your thalamus will take what it deems important and send it off to its appropriate area : visual info > visual cortex – motor info > premotor/motor cortex etc. Smell was thought to be the same, but no.
Smell goes from your olfactory bulb directly to your hippocampus and an area called the amygdala which handles emotional processing. This helps to explain why the smell of something can immediately trigger a detailed memory or vivid emotion.
You would then think, “ okay well this must be a phenomenon that only exists in complex organisms?” Nope.
Evidence suggests that bacteria have been present on Earth since the early Precambrian period, about 3.5 billion years ago. They became prevalent with the emergence of cyanobacteria ( blue-green algae) and resultant oxygen roughly 1.8 billion years ago. Bacteria have thus had plenty of time to adapt to their environments here on earth.
Recently, research has emerged showing that bacteria can “smell” their environment in a manner similar to complex organisms. Studies of soil bacteria showed that they could detect the scent of airborne ammonia, join forces with other bacteria and migrate towards the substance. Ammonia is the simplest nitrogen source needed for bacteria to grow. Hence the bacteria showed an impressive ability to sense (smell) its environment and respond accordingly which is crucial to its survival.
RETURNING TO MAMMALS
Back in clinic, time and again I listened to patients as they recounted vivid childhood memories:
“ Summers building sandcastles at the beach.”
“ The scent of a Christmas tree filling the living room.”
“ Trips to a favourite ice cream shop.”
It took me longer than it should, but one day it dawned on me; I needed to use food to connect my patients with these vestiges of the past. It started with a set of scented markers.
Black licorice from a candy shop as a six year old – got it. Florescent blue slushie from the gas station – got it. Chocolate dip from the ice cream truck – got it.
These things all worked. Patients marveled at the ability of their hippocampal neurons to instantly pull them back in time. It became a bit of a ritual in clinic and one that centered more and more around ice cream.
Nostalgic ice cream experiences are as unique as fingerprints and exploring them became more than just a trip down memory lane. It was becoming a way to preserve and even restore cognition, memory, taste, smell and emotion.
Three years later and the amusing scented markers have been replaced by thick 45% local dairy, moisture-rich vanilla beans from Madagascar and wickedly scented pistachios from Bronte, Sicily. What started as a passing hobby quickly became an obsession. Some folks hire a golf coach; I hired an ice cream coach. Some enjoy playing rec hockey; I enjoy playing with the breakdown and reconstitution of dairy proteins.
Today I will be packing pints for our ice cream club. I have enlisted/forced my 4 year-old son into creating the custom artwork for each pint. That way, even if my customers don’t remember the single-origin Sumatran dark roast packed tightly into their pints many decades from today; the artwork will be difficult to forget.