A German neurologist and psychiatrist grieving the untimely loss of his wife throws himself into research on manic depression and schizophrenia. He hears of a nearby woman, 51 years old, who’s suffering from unexplained, rapid short-term memory loss and strange behaviors. Her case quickly becomes his obsession and leads to a discovery that altered medical history forever. Could be the plot of a PBS mini-series, right? This is actually the true story behind the man who’s credited with the discovery of Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915).
Born and raised in southern Germany, Dr. Alzheimer graduated from medical school in 1887 and completed his residency at the Hospital for Mentally Ill and Epileptics in Frankfurt. His post-doctoral focus was on cerebral cortex function and neuropathology, the study of brain disease. In 1901, the year his wife died, Alzheimer came in contact with Auguste Deter, a 51 year-old woman who was deteriorating rapidly despite doctors’ best efforts to treat her hallucinations, paranoia, and precipitous memory loss. Although his research caused him to relocate to another city, Alzheimer continued to closely monitor Deter’s condition while continuing to seek answers to epilepsy and other brain disorders.
When Deter died at age 55, Alzheimer requested that her brain be sent to his lab in Munich where he could perform a thorough examination. Upon its dissection, Alzheimer discovered significant shrinkage of the cerebral cortex – the area involved in memory, language, judgment, and overall thought process. He also found multiple abnormal clumps – now referred to as amyloid plaques – as well as the tangled bundles we now call neurofibrillary or tau tangles. While the amyloid plaques had been seen before in elderly subjects, Alzheimer’s description and analysis of tau tangles was unprecedented.
He presented his findings in 1906, referring for the first time to a “particular malady of the cerebral cortex”; Alzheimer’s boss was the one who named this advanced senile dementia after his protégé. Aside from the discovery itself, what’s truly remarkable is that today’s pathological view of Alzheimer’s is not dramatically different from his, showing how advanced his vision truly was.
To learn more about this amazing scientist, head to the Alzheimer’s Association Research Center.