The birth of Alzheimer’s disease

Neurophilosophy has just published another wonderfully illustrated article on a key moment in neuroscience: this one focuses on Alois Alzheimer, one of the first to discover the major brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease, and Auguste Deter, the middle aged woman in whom he first detected the pathology now inextricably linked to the disorder.

When in his care, Alzheimer carefully recorded Deter’s clinical symptoms of memory loss, impaired language and confusion, and later, when she died, he looked carefully at her brain during post-mortem.

Using a recently developed staining technique he found abnormal clumps of protein, peppered throughout the brain – which are now known to be amyloid plaques – one of the most recognisable features of the disease.

The article makes the interesting point that Alzheimer did not in fact discover this, but that the name has stuck because the head of the research group, Emil Kraepelin, highlighted the findings under the name ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ to promote the institution.

Although well known in his own right, it is true that Kraepelin gained much reflected glory from promoting the work of Alzheimer.

Unfortunately, Kraeplin’s reputation was to be tarnished by his other all-together less distinguished prot√©g√©, Ernst R√ºdin.

Rüdin was hired by Kraepelin to study the genetics of mental illness and found evidence of how mental instability could be inherited.

Later, Rüdin became a key player in drafting the Nazi Law to Prevent Hereditarily Sick Offspring which resulted in the forcible sterilisation of thousands of people with physical disabilities, drug addiction, and mental and neurological disorders.

This was the beginning of what was later to become Action T4 in which thousands upon thousands of people with supposed ‘hereditary defects’ were systematically killed by the Nazis.

Alzheimer’s contribution to neuroscience is thankfully notable for the right reasons, and the Neurophilosophy article is a great tour through his work, notes and original drawings.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Alois Alzheimer’s first case’.

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