Tuesday, 22 September 2015 00:00

The story of Alois Alzheimer

Today millions of funds are used for Alzheimer’s research, but it all started with three people in the late 19th century.
Alois Alzheimer was a young psychiatrist and travelling companion to the mentally ill women in the late 1800’s.  It was thought that the combination of travel under the constant care of a physician could “cure” mental illness.  This line of work gave Alzheimer the opportunity to study the different types of mental illness and it was thought that he was one of few physicians that believed travel was no cure for a brain disease.  However, it was only after he had been working in a clinic in Frankfurt for three years that a mentally ill patient Auguste Deter was brought in and would become the catalyst to the young doctor discovering a disease that would become his life’s work and namesake.
Auguste Deter was brought to the clinic by her husband when she was in her early fifties.  For a few years she had been experiencing difficulty in sleeping, a problem that eventually led to her walking around at night, sometimes taking her bedding with her. Dr Alzheimer spent many hours interviewing her to try to determine the cause of her condition.
Alzheimer continued to follow Deter’s case until she eventually died in 1906. On examining her brain tissue under microscope Alzheimer described the unusual plaques that had formed in the usually empty space between nerve cells, and the “string-like substances” now recognised as the characteristics of the disease.

Alzheimer’s research files on Deter were lost over the years, but in 1995 the file was discovered in the archives of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. In the well-preserved file are interviews between Deter and Alzheimer with instantly recognisable symptoms of what we now know about the disease.  The pharmaceutical company had purchased and renovated Alzheimer’s home and it was on Dec 19, 1995, on the 80th anniversary of Alzheimer’s death, that he was commemorated and his birth-home was inaugurated as a museum and conference centre.

Alzheimer went on to study the brains of many patients displaying similar symptoms, but struggled to find physical likenesses that could link them together.  For this reason, his findings were not widely recognised.  One person who did take an interest was researcher Emil Kraepelin, a firm believer in mental illness as a medical problem and not as a result of a problematic childhood or sexual frustration. Kraepelin showed a keen interest in Alzheimer’s studies and often worked alongside him researching patients and brain specimens.
Alois Alzheimer discovered the disease, and published his findings in 1907, but after his early death at the age of 51, it was Kraepelin who presented Alzheimer’s findings to the medical fraternity and admitted it to textbooks, forming the basis of our current research.   

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