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Making History

Making History: Alois Alzheimer, the man who named a dread disease

By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer

The very mention of  “Alzheimer’s disease,” can evoke a number of emotions, including terror, since it is a debilitating disease that robs victims of their memories and other cognitive functions.

alzheimer_headshotIt has long been recognized that with age often comes dementia, but what about when such conditions present themselves at a younger age? It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that doctors identified a specific cause for what had been previously dismissed as presenile dementia.

Born in Marktbriet, Bavaria in 1864, Alois Alzheimer, the son of a notary public, attended medical school and was awarded his medical degree in 1887. A year later, he began his residency at the Hospital for the Mentally Ill and Epileptics in Frankfort, Germany, immersing himself in the study of psychiatry and neuropathology.

While there, Alzheimer partnered with noted neurologist Franz Nissi, and the pair embarked on intensive studies of the pathology of the nervous system, resulting in the six-volume “Histologic and Histopathology Studies of the Cerebral Cortex,” published between 1906 and 1918. In addition to his study of the pathology of the nervous system, Alzheimer did research on a wide range of subjects, including manic depression and schizophrenia, brain changes in arteriosclerosis, brain changes in epilepsy and the loss of nerve cells in Huntington’s chorea.

While Alzheimer had become a psychiatrist and researcher of note, it was not until 1901 that he encountered the patient who would make his name a household word even today.

That patient was Auguste Deter, a 51-year-old woman, who was admitted to the Hospital for the Mentally Ill and Epileptics suffering from a variety of symptoms, including short-term memory loss, delusions, temporary vegetative states and bizarre behavior such as screaming.

Deter rapidly deteriorated into severe dementia, and she died in 1906 at the age of 55.

Alzheimer, who had been fascinated by the case, heard of the death and decided to review the patient’s medical records and examine her brain.

The examination revealed the cerebral cortex of the brain to be abnormally thin and detected the presence of senile plaque, the same substance noted in the brains of the elderly. A key finding, however, was the discovery of neurofibrillar tangles in material from the cerebral cortex.  This tangling had not been noted previously in dementia cases, and became the basis of defining a new disease.

Additional cases were subsequently discovered and described by additional researchers, including Alzheimer himself, and the condition was officially designated as Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer not only discovered a new condition, but his diagnostics protocol is still used today, pretty much unchanged as when he first used it.

After a successful and groundbreaking career, Alois Alzheimer, who spent his last years as a professor of psychiatry and researcher at the University of Breslau in Poland died Dec. 19, 1915 at the age of 51, of cardiac failure.

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