Rise of the Planet of the Apes — A Scientific Critique

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” told the story of a researcher who, while looking for the cure to Alzheimer’s, inadvertently created an army of highly intelligent primates (whoops) by developing a virus that allowed brain tissue to heal itself. The scientist, played by James Franco, had personal reasons for developing the cure; his father, living with him at home, was visibly suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the film, many of the details involving the miracle virus are vaguely expressed, but the film does adequately show a difference in how the chimpanzees and humans are differentially affected by the virus when infected. Thus, this film is a fine representation of the difficulties of applying animal model research in the lab. Moreover, this film uses topical knowledge of the pathogenicity of Alzheimer’s combined with the more widespread knowledge of the visible, debilitating effects of the disease to develop a dramatic science-fiction story with just enough realistic explanation of scientific phenomena to make the story seem plausible in real life.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder occurring in nearly 5% of the elderly population worldwide (Bali et. al, 2010). The disease develops over time as neuron cells die, and ultimately presents clinically with memory loss and cognitive impairment (Castellani et. al, 2010). Current studies in Alzheimer’s therapy revolve around prevention: recognizing particularly susceptible groups and taking steps to slow the onset of the disease. Specifically, amyloid-β treatments are utilized since deposits of these peptides are often visible many years before patients show symptoms of Alzheimer’s (Reiman 2013).

James Franco and his scientist buddies, while looking for a cure to Alzheimer’s, infect chimpanzees with an experimental virus to examine how it impacts brain tissue and intelligence. Promising results show infected chimps succeeding at the so-called “Lucas Tower” – an actual laboratory test called the Tower of Hanoi. This test is used in real life in various studies, and it measures cognitive abilities based on skill learning and mastery (Schiff and Vakil, 2015). In the film, improved intelligence (based on a “good” Lucas Tower score) of the chimps is understood to supposedly highlight potential brain-healing qualities of the drug in humans. However, this mechanism is not particularly explained, just assumed. My critique of this particular detail is this: although new brain cells may develop in chimps infected with the drug and subsequently enable them to perform higher level functions, there is no assurance that this same mechanism will revitalize dead neurons in a human brain plagued with Alzheimer’s.

The scientist’s father shows the accurate signs of Alzheimer’s. He has trouble using silverware while eating, remembering piano tunes, and he is unable to drive. Complications occur in the lab, and the scientist eventually finds himself running unofficial, experimental human trials on his father using the virus. The Alzheimer’s-stricken old man receives an injection before bed and is heard flawlessly playing old piano tunes just a couple of hours later after waking up. Although there is no current complete cure to Alzheimer’s in existence to compare this phenomena to, it is still hard to believe that such a monumental improvement would occur within the man’s brain overnight with such visible effects. Alas, the quick change certainly instills a strong feeling of fulfillment and human victory over misfortune amongst the film’s audience.

In addition after the lab complications, the scientist takes home a baby chimpanzee (Caesar) that is found to have received the virus in utero, his mother being one of the chimps showing increased intelligence after infection with the virus. Although some viruses like HIV and herpes are known to cross the placenta during pregnancy or transmitted during birth, the movie did not provide enough detail about the virus to be able to say whether this transmission would be plausible or not. As the scientist’s father responds to the virus with restored cognitive abilities, the chimp responds to its presence in his body by showing abnormal, high-intelligence behaviors for a monkey: quick learning of sign language, humanistic qualities like holding and drinking from cups, and general adaption to a human environment.

Although the chimp continues to get smarter (and cause more problems), after a while the old man regresses back to showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The scientist associates this problem to his father’s immune system producing antibodies against the anti-Alzheimer’s virus. It is unclear in the film how long the virus is effective before the body responds by attacking it. It seems like in order for an immune response to be plausible it would have had to occur within a few days of the man receiving the virus. Another discrepancy is this: another scientist in the lab is accidentally exposed to the virus during a chimp experiment and dies. The infection causes some hemorrhagic disorder that was clearly not present in the old man (although he ends up dying as well since the virus stops being able to cure his Alzheimer’s). Lastly, the chimp infected with the virus neither develops the hemorrhagic disorder nor builds up antibodies against the virus. These discrepancies are strangely not addressed and slightly frustrating to someone with a scientific mind.

Despite the vague details of some biological aspects and the mentioned inconsistencies, the foundation of Alzheimer’s as the scientist’s initial motivation for most of the drama that occurs is powerful and relatable. As the generation of senior citizens increases, there a larger high-risk group for Alzheimer’s, and many people my age and older are likely to experience their grandparents or parents suffering from this unfortunate disease.

The next time you watch a science-fiction movie consider the plausibility of the science discussed in the plot. The majority of science-fiction films you will watch won’t have any scientific basis at all, but one of the coolest parts of this film is that a biologist like myself, however visionary, can see a future in brain-healing Alzheimer’s therapy. I am less convinced that vengeful apes will congregate, learn to speak and take over the world, but… I digress.

Check out the Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer here:

Note: I originally wrote this review for my Molecular Basis of Disease class at UNC.

References

  1. Bali, Jitin; Halima, Saoussen; Felmy, BoasView Profile; Goodger, Zoe; Zurbriggen, SebastianView Profile; et al. Cellular basis of Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, suppl. Suppl 213 (Dec 2010): 89-93.
  2. Castellani, Rudy J.; Rolston, Raj K.; Smith, Mark A. September 2010. Alzheimer’s Disease. Disease-a-Month. 56(9): 484-546.
  3. Reiman, Eric M. January 2014. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias: advances in 2013. The Lancet Neurology. 13(1): 3-5.
  4. Schiff, Rachel; Vakil, Eli. 2015. Age differences in cognitive skill learning, retention and transfer: The case of the Tower of Hanoi Puzzle. Learning and Individual Differences. Accessed Online.
  5. Picture Link: http://www.dvd-ppt-slideshow.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/rise-of-planet-of-the-apes-4.jpg
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