The Discovery and History of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, was first discovered and described in 1906 by a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Dr. Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915). In 1901 he was working at a psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt when a 51 year-old woman named Auguste Deter was admitted for treatment. She was suffering from depression, paranoia, delusional thinking, hallucinations, and dementia. The patient would become his obsession over the coming years. In April 1906 she died at age 55. Dr. Alzheimer recognized that she exhibited signs and symptoms from a disease process that he was not familiar with and had not been previously described in the literature. Dr. Alzheimer had the patient’s brain brought to Munich where he was working at Emil Kraepelin’s lab. He would use the recently developed staining techniques to examine her brain tissue under a microscope and to identify amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. On November 3, 1906 Dr. Alzheimer presented a brief lecture entitled “On the Peculiar Disease Process of the Cerebral Cortex” at the Tübingen meeting of the Southwest German Psychiatrists describing the pathology and the symptoms of presenile dementia. Dr. Kraepelin’s use of Alzheimer’s disease in a textbook would make the name famous. By 1911, Alzheimer’s description of this particular type of dementia was being used by European physicians to diagnose patients in the U.S. It is historically interesting that Dr. Alzheimer knew and worked with Dr. Frederick Lewy after whom Lewy Body Dementia was named. He also knew Dr. Arnold Pick, the physician to first describe (in 1892) the behavioral variant of Frontotemporal Dementia (formerly called Pick’s Disease).
It is noteworthy that Mrs. Deter developed dementia before the age of 65 and would today be classified as early-onset or younger-onset dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Most cases of Alzheimer’s dementia (95%) occur over the age of 65. In 1900 the average life expectancy from birth was 47.3 years and so Alzheimer’s dementia was relatively rare. Most people did not live long enough for the disease to develop and to be expressed (in those destined to develop Alzheimer’s dementia).
In December of 1915 Dr. Alzheimer became ill while traveling by train on his way to the University of Breslau, where he had been appointed professor of psychiatry in 1912. It is believed that he contracted a streptococcal infection and subsequently developed rheumatic fever and kidney failure. He died of heart failure at the age of 51 in Breslau.
Dr. Alois Alzheimer and Mrs. Auguste Deter, the first patient to be formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.