The History of Alzheimer's Disease Part 1: Alois Alzheimer
Today Alzheimer’s Disease is the most well-known form of Dementia and 46.8 million people are living with it globally. The discovery of this disease took place over 110 years ago by clinical psychiatrist, professor, and researcher, Alois Alzheimer.
Alois Alzheimer was born on June 14th, 1864 in the small town of Marktbreit, Germany to Anna and Eduard Alzheimer. Alois was the oldest of 7 children and his father worked as a notary for the kingdom of Bavaria (Note: Before the unification of Germany in 1871, the current country of Germany was divided into multiple kingdoms with Prussia and Bavaria being the largest). The Alzheimers moved from Marktbreit to Aschaffenburg early in Alois’s life so their children could attend the college preparatory school there. Alois graduated from Aschaffenburg in 1883 and studied medicine from 1883-1885 at the universities of Berlin, Freiburg, and Wiritzburg. During these years, he became drawn to studying anatomy and received a robust education in all the medical disciplines. Interestingly, he only attended a few classes on clinical psychiatry and it’s unlikely he did a psychiatric clinical as a student. While attending medical school, he was a member of the school’s fencing team and suffered a cut on his left cheek which left a permanent scar.
He graduated magna cum laude and spent five months as the personal caregiver to a mentally ill woman. Hiring a doctor as a personal caregiver for a mentally ill family member was common among wealthy German families. After his short stint as a personal caregiver, he joined innovative psychiatrist Emil Sioli at the Community Hospital for Mental and Epileptic Patients in Frankfurt, Germany. It was during this time that he met his good friend and mentor, Franz Nissl. Nissl encouraged Alois to explore his interests in research in addition to his daily clinical duties. It was in Frankfurt that Alois meant Cecilia Geisenheimer who became his wife in 1895 and they had three children together.
Tragically, Cecilia died in 1901. After her death, Alois’s sister moved in to look after his children and he threw himself deeper into his work. Shortly after this, in an almost matter of fate, he began his observation on Auguste Deter, the woman whom Alois based his finding of “pre-senile dementia” on. At the time of her admittance to the hospital, Auguste Deter was 50 years old. She was committed to the hospital by her husband when she began displaying symptoms of paranoia, sleep issues, memory loss, agitation, and increased confusion. The hospital was too expensive for her husband to afford, but because Alois was so intrigued by her case, he was able to keep her at the facility. Upon her death in 1906, Alois received the rights to Auguste’s body and medical records. He took these to a laboratory in Munich where, in collaboration with other physicians, he discovered amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. This discovery was the groundwork that Alois built his research on.
Alois presented this discovery at the 1906 Tubingen meeting of German Psychiatrists. While other lecturers’ presentations lead to vibrant discussions and many questions, Alois’s was meant with little fanfare and he received no questions or comments. His presentation received just two sentences in the meeting’s press release.
Discouraged by the meeting, but not defeated, Alois continued his research into the phenomenon of “pre-senile dementia. He published an extensive paper on his findings in 1907, and it was around this time that he began studying a patient named Josef F. It was while studying Josef F that he discovered a stage of Alzheimer’s disease where only neurofibrillary tangles had formed and there were no plaques. This discovery was important because it was the first examination of an individual stage of the disease. After this discovery, renowned psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin introduced the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” in his 8th edition of Psychiatry A in a section about pre-senile Dementia. After the publication of Kraepelin’s book, the term Alzheimer’s disease slowly began to be used throughout Europe and later replaced the term “Pre-Senile Dementia”.
In addition to discovering Alzheimer’s Disease, Alois was a champion for the humane treatment of psychiatry patients. He implemented practices against the restraining patients, limited the use of isolation rooms, and required frequent conversation and interaction between staff and patients.
Alois passed away in Breslau, Germany on December 19th, 1915 at the age of 51. Alois’s research was still being used to study Alzheimer’s disease as early as 1995. His discovery changed the medical world and was the first step in the long road to finding a cure.