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How was Alzheimer's disease discovered?

Dr. David A. Merrill, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

In 1906, a German neuropathologist and psychiatrist named Alois Alzheimer had a patient with a peculiar disease who initially presented with poor memory and some word-finding difficulties or language problems. The doctor continued to follow her, and over the years she became more and more confused and disoriented about things, and even started hallucinating. She was eventually placed in an institution, where she died. He called her condition presenile dementia, but his boss renamed the disorder after him. In any case, what Dr. Alzheimer did was analyze the brain and find plaques and tangles, which are now considered the hallmark of the pathology of the disease.

Dr. Gary Small, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

In 1906, Alois Alzheimer described the first case of a woman who became confused in her early 50s and died four years later. Alzheimer did an autopsy and applied special stains to her brain.  She noticed that small, waxy protein deposits had collected in the areas of the brain that controlled memory and thinking. Her discovery was the first defined case of Alzheimer's.

However, the medical community pay much attention to her discovery, because the woman was middle-aged. Doctors had assumed that Alzheimer’s disease was a rare dementia that only affected people early in life. However, in the late 1960s, pathologists studied what was then called senility. When researchers examined brain autopsies of older adults who had confusion, they found the same protein deposits (plaques and tangles). The result was a lot of public fear and concern about an epidemic of Alzheimer's.

Since that finding, scientists and doctors more carefully researched the disease and have developed better ways to diagnose and treat it.

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