How Alzheimer's Got its Name

Christine Kennard Health Pro
  • There are lots of diseases named after the person that first identified them. Parkinson's, Peyronie's, Paget's, Batten's, Graves disease are just a few examples. Alzheimer's is named after Alois Alzheimer.


    Alois Alzheimer was born on June 14, 1864, in Marktbreit, Bavaria, Southern Germany. He went to the Universities of Aschaffenburg, Tübingen, Berlin, and Würzburg from which he graduated with a medical degree in 1887. After this Alzheimer moved to the state asylum in Frankfurt am Main, where his work began into the human brain, through neuropathology and psychiatry.


    At the asylum he worked with a very talented scientist called Franz Nissl. Together they worked on a six volume study called the, 'Histologic and Histopathologic Studies of the Cerebral Cortex,' in which they described the pathology of the nervous system. In 1895Alois Alzheimer was appointed director of the asylum where his interests included manic depression and schizophrenia.

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    In 1901 a 51-year-old woman was brought to see him. Frau Auguste D, as she became known, had symptoms that included disorientation, aphasia, auditory hallucinations, paranoia, unpredicable behavior and pronounced psycho-social impairment. Her symptoms rapidly grew worse, and by 1906 she was bedridden and dying from infected bedsores and pneumonia. It was a case that was to make Dr. Alzheimer famous.


    At autopsy, Alzheimer found that Auguste D's brain showed dramatic shrinkage, especially of the cortex - the outer layer involved in memory, thinking, judgment and speech. On further examination he found widespread fatty deposits in small blood vessels, dead and dying brain cells, and abnormal deposits in and around cells.


    By the time Frau August D died, Alois Alzheimer had moved to work as a research assistant to Emil Kraepelin, a psychiatrist noted for his work in naming and classifying brain disorders, at the Munich medical school.  Dr Alzheimer presented his finding in a three paged paper suggesting an organic causation to August D's symptoms. It was Emile Kraepelin who suggested the disease be called Alzheimer's.


    Alois Alzheimer, doctor and academic, died in December 1915 in Breslau, Germany. He was only 51 years old. For three years his health had been deteriorating. He developed endocarditis, an infection which resulted in heart failure. Although his life had been dedicated to increasing our understanding of human physiology and disease, he could have little idea that his name would become an internationally understood description of a disease suffered by millions of people all over the world, Alzheimer's disease.

Published On: September 05, 2008