Portrait of Alois Alzheimer

Alois Alzheimer and Auguste Deter

Nancy Wilkinson looks into the story of how Alzheimer’s disease was discovered and named

You may be able to guess which brain disease Alois Alzheimer discovered. And so you won’t be surprised to learn that he was a neuroscientist, interested in a combination of research and clinical practice.

Alzheimer worked as a clinical researcher in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and became a research assistant to Emil Kraepelin (a pioneer of psychiatry) at the Munich Medical School in 1903 to study the conditions and diseases of the brain.

In 1901, Alzheimer met Auguste Deter in a hospital for the mentally ill in Frankfurt after she was admitted at just 51. Deter was to become the first person Alzheimer’s disease was recognised in, although back then she was diagnosed with senile dementia.

After Deter’s death in 1906, Alzheimer managed to get hold of her medical records and brain for his own research. Using his notes from their meeting, as well as her medical records, he compiled a list of her symptoms. She showed impaired memory, disorientation, progressive memory lapses, the inability to use language and ‘psychosocial incompetence’ (the legal definition of dementia at the time).

He then studied her brain in an attempt to understand the symptoms he had recorded. Alzheimer found that her cerebral cortex was thinner than usual, that plaques had formed in between the neurons of her brain and that tangles had formed in the brain fibres. The plaques had been described previously (in older patients), but the tangles had not. Alzheimer had access to a stain called Bodian’s stain that hadn’t been used before and highlighted the tangles for the first time.

In 1906 Alzheimer presented the findings that would make him famous and cement his name in the history of medicine. It wasn’t until 90 years later that his original notes on August Deter’s condition were discovered, complete with samples of her handwriting and interviews between the doctor and patient.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Although the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are still not proven, the most supported theory explains that the symptoms are due to the plaques and tangles seen in patients’ autopsies (post mortems) after death, as Alzheimer described.

The plaques are deposits of the protein beta-amyloid that accumulate in the spaces between neurons. The tangles occur when the protein tau accumulates inside neurons and becomes denatured, tangling the nerve fibres. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that can get worse as it develops. There is no cure as yet and, unfortunately, it is terminal (it causes death). As you may expect, it is still a heavily researched topic because its exact cause is still unclear and because it is such a devastating disease.

Impressively, the pathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is still generally based on the investigative methods used in 1906, highlighting the quality of Alzheimer’s original research.

Lead image:

A portrait of Alois Alzheimer.

Luciana Christante/Flickr CC BY NC ND

Questions for discussion

  • Some people dispute that Alzheimer was actually the first person to discover Alzheimer’s disease. Can you find out more information about who else could have been involved, and why the name Alzheimer’s stuck?
  • Alzheimer’s disease becomes more prevalent as our population ages. Can you think of three other health-related problems the world may face as its population grows older?
  • Can you find three other diseases or conditions that are named after people who discovered them or had them? It may be helpful to know that these are known as ‘eponymous’, which means ‘named after’. Do any of them affect the brain?

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Cell biology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease
Inside the Brain, Proteins, Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development