Louise Lowman Lee remembers stories about her great-grandmother being put in a fenced area in the backyard, so she could wander safely. She watched her mother patiently care for her grandmother, who lost her reason, inhibitions, and ability to care for herself. Then Alzheimer’s disease gradually eroded the brain of her devoted mother, too.
But when Lee and two of her sisters brought their mother, Mildred Chastain Lowman, to Emory University in Atlanta in 2006, they weren’t thinking about the family tree. They were just looking for the best possible treatment.
Dr. Allan Levey asked them to come into a conference room with a genetic counselor and other members of his team. “We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
“We were sort of stunned,” recalled Sherry Dunn, another sister. “We were looking at each other like, ‘What are they talking about?’”
Levey explained that he had seen other Chastains in his clinic over the years and had begun studying their pattern of Alzheimer’s inheritance. Genetic studies are stronger if they include multiple branches of a family tree, and here was Lowman, a distant cousin. She even looked uncannily like another Chastain patient Levey had treated.
The Lowman sisters immediately agreed to give blood samples and take baseline cognitive tests.
Their personal struggle took on a greater purpose. Emory researchers “needed us just as much as we needed them,” said the youngest sister, Holly Phillips.