Aloysius “Alois” Alzheimer

Neuro_Nerds2.jpgOn November 3, 1906, a key paper from a German physician at the Royal Psychiatric Clinic at Munich University, described a case of dementia and altered behavior in Frau Auguste Deter, who had died 7 months earlier. Although dementia was a commonly diagnosed symptom of the day, the paper was unique because for the first time, its symptoms and pathological features under the microscope — ‘neurofibrillary tangles’ and ‘plaques’ were described together. Alois Alzheimer had previously worked as a colleague with Franz Nissl (who described a popular method of staining brain sections with silver, thus enabling one to see brain cells under the microscope – a method in use even today) at Frankfurt am Main. This enabled him to study accurately the features of Frau Auguste’s brain, which was sent to lab at Munich, where he was working alongside Dr Kraeplin, who was well-known for his classification of schizophrenia. In his eight edition textbook Psychiatrie, he eponymously mentioned ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ as a distinct subcategory of senile dementia.

Alois, whose name appears in one of the commonest eponymous conditions of our times (Alzheimer’s disease affects nearly 15 million people worldwide) was born on June 14 1864 in Bavaria, the son of a notary public official in the family’s hometown, Markbreit. After qualifying form Wurzberg University in 1887, he gradually developed an interest in neuropathology (studying brain diseases under the microscope) while working as a psychiatrist. In 1901, Dr Alzheimer first met 51 year old Auguste Deter when he was working at the Frankfurt Asylum, with strange behavioral symptoms and a remarkable poor short term memory. Over the coming years, he would develop an obsession about her case, culminating in his detailed examination of her brain after her death, the microscopic slides of which were re-discovered recently, and reported in 1997.

Appointed Professor of Psychiatry at Breslau in 1912, his tenure was short-lived as he fell ill on the train on his way to Breslau in 1915, and died from a complicated case of streptococcal sore throat which resulted in subsequent rheumatic fever, kidney failure and heart failure at the age of 51.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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