The History of Alzheimer’s Disease

by Sara Suchy Editor

All diseases have a history. When did Alzheimer’s disease catch the attention of scientists and doctors? And where is research headed today?

Dementia image.

Making the distinction

For as long as human beings have been around, there have been cases of dementia. The ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers recognized dementia in their culture. It was considered a normal part of aging. While a certain amount of cognitive deterioration is indeed normal as a person ages, doctors began to realize that some people seemed to deteriorate faster and more severely than others.

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Case #1

In 1901, Dr. Alois Alzheimer encountered a 51-year-old patient named Mrs. Auguste Deter who was living in the Frankfurt Asylum in Germany. Mrs. Deter exhibited strange behavioral and cognitive symptoms, including a loss of short-term memory and agitation. Alzheimer followed her case from 1901 until her death in April of 1906.

Brain image.

Alzheimer’s disease is uncovered

Upon Mrs. Deter’s death, Alzheimer was able to perform a brain autopsy. He found amyloid plaques and neurofiber tangles, plus atrophy of her gray matter. He recognized that this was not the normal dementia that comes with aging, but something far worse, especially for a relatively young woman. Study into this kind of dementia became his life’s work.

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Alzheimer’s is presented to the medical world

On November 4th, 1906, Alzheimer presented Mrs. Deter’s case at a conference in Germany and described the case as a peculiar disease of the cerebral cortex. Her case was the first publicly presented and documented case of Alzheimer’s disease, which was marked by the growth of amyloid plaque and tangled neurofibers in a brain autopsy.

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More cases appear

Within five years, 11 more cases of the symptoms and similar autopsy results were reported. Some were already being referred to as Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s was included as a subtype of senile dementia in the Textbook of Psychiatry, published in 1910. However, the description of the disease was incomplete, as it did not include several of its pathological and clinical features.

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A broader definition

Because of the omissions made by the Textbook of Psychiatry, Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses were at first limited to individuals between the ages of 45 and 65. The definition was finally broadened in 1977 to any age, after several studies found that the pathological and clinical symptoms almost always occurred together regardless of the person’s age.

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The Alzheimer’s Association

In 1980 Jeremy H. Stone founded the Alzheimer’s Association, the first nonprofit organization to advocate and support Alzheimer’s research. It remains the largest supporter of Alzheimer’s research in the U.S. and regularly produces reports on the state of Alzheimer’s in the U.S. and the world.

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Research limitations

Alzheimer’s disease has baffled physicians and researchers since its introduction to the medical world. One of the reasons it is so puzzling is that it still cannot be definitively diagnosed until the patient has already died and an autopsy can be done on the brain. With this limitation, it is difficult to study Alzheimer’s in ‘real time’ or watch its progression.

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Mixed research results

Despite limitations, research continues. In 2012, two pharmaceutical companies had setbacks in late-stage research trials of drugs that aimed to treat or cure Alzheimer’s. There were also successes. A research trial from Ohio State University found a way to delete an enzyme in the brains of mice that promotes the growth of amyloid beta plaque. This strategy is making its way to human testing.

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Research today

As of June 2012, there were more than 330 clinical trials in progress that in one way or another aimed to better understand, treat, prevent or even cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Thirty of the studies have reached the human testing phase and scientists are consistently finding new aspects of the disease to study.

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The future of Alzheimer’s research

The race to find a treatment or cure becomes more pressing as the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease increases. A report from the Alzheimer’s Association found that one in nine people 65 and older has Alzheimer’s. Another report notes that dementia care costs the U.S. $159 billion each year. President Barack Obama recently proposed a brain-mapping project toward the study of the human brain.

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Bright Focus Foundation, A History of Alzheimer’s Disease (October, 2012); Alzheimer’s Association, Our History (April, 2013); Alzheimer’s Association, Research Center (2013); U.S. National Institutes of Health, Clinical Trials (April, 2013)

Sara Suchy
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Sara Suchy

Sara is a former editor for HealthCentral.