The History of Alzheimers

As you might expect the history of Alzheimers Disease (originally Alzheimers Syndrome) has a lot to do with the discoveries made by Dr Alois Alzheimer.

Dr Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, was born in Bavaria in 1864 and died in 1915. It was at the turn of the century while working at the Frankfurt Asylum that he first observed a patient described as ‘unusually agitated, with periods of memory loss and impaired speech.’

This patient was Mrs Auguste Deter, she was 51 years old, and this where the history of Alzheimers officially begins. Previous to her move to the asylum her husband had been caring for her at home. The symptoms at the beginning he had described as being bouts of anger, then memory loss and increasing confusion, but as the illness had progressed he had found it increasingly hard for him to continue caring for her on a daily basis.

Dr Alzheimer, unfamiliar with the symptoms that so closely resembled traits of an eighty-one year old rather than a fifty-one year old, became obsessed with discovering more about what was happening to his patient.

So, over the next few years he monitored Mrs Deter carefully, observing her declining health and eventual death in 1906. At which point he requested that all her medical notes and her brain be sent to him in Munich where he was currently working.

Through a series of experiments, including staining techniques, he was able to identify unusual deposits of protein in and on the nerve cells (amyloid plaques) in Mrs Deter’s brain and also twisted and deformed fibres inside the cells (neurofibrillary tangles).

(Read our article What is Alzheimers? for a clearer description of what he discovered.)

This discovery changed at least one previously held belief, that the behaviour displayed by Mrs Deter and considered part of the natural aging process when seen in older people, was not due to old age. (If Mrs Deter, unaware of the vital role she was playing in the history of Alzheimers, had been alive today she would undoubtedly have be diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimers.)

Alzheimer went on to publish the first credited case of ‘presenile dementia’ an illness that was later renamed as Alzheimers disease by Emil Kraepelin.