Alois Alzheimer

In 1906, a pathologist by the name of Alois Alzheimer discovered an ‘unusual disease of the cerebral cortex’.

Who is Alois Alzheimer?

In June of 1903, a researcher and pathologist by name of Alois Alzheimer (born Aloysius Alzheimer in 1864) was invited to open up a psychiatric clinic in Munich, Germany as a research assistant alongside another doctor by the name of Emil Kraepelin. The clinic would focus namely on brain research, inspiring Dr Alzheimer with the prospect of linking theoretical and clinical practice.

While also working as a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, it was in 1906 that Alzheimer gave a now famous talk to the 37th Congress of Psychiatrists of Southern Germany.

In his talk, Alzheimer stated that he had identified an ‘unusual disease of the cerebral cortex’, which had affected a woman by the name of Auguste D. The disease had caused symptoms of memory loss, disorientation, and hallucinations up until Auguste’s death, which at fifty years of age, was atypical.

In the post-mortem autopsy, Auguste’s brain showed various abnormalities. The cerebral cortex was thinner than normal and senile plaque, previously only encountered in elderly people, was found in the brain along with neurofibrillary tangles. With access to a new stain, Alzheimer was able to identify these nerve tangles which had never previously been described.

Though the discovery was significant, little importance was given to the atrophy of the cerebral cortex that Alzheimer had identified. It wasn’t until 1910 that Kraepelin would name the disease as ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ in the 8th edition of the ‘Handbook of Psychiatry’.

About Alois Alzheimer

Alois Alzheimer was born in 1864 in Markbreit in Bavaria, Southern Germany. Excelling in sciences at school, he studied medicine in Berlin, Aschaffenburg, Tübingen and Würzburg, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1887. The following year, he began work at the state asylum in Frankfurt am Main, becoming interested in research on the cortex of the human brain. Here he commenced his education in psychiatry and neuropathology.

Along with Franz Nissl, a colleague at the asylum, Alzheimer spent the following years working on a major six volume study, the ‘Histologic and Histopathologic Studies of the Cerebral Cortex,’ describing the pathology of the nervous system. The work was finally published between 1907 and 1918.

During his time working at the asylum, Alois married Cecilie Simonette Nathalie Wallerstein, with whom he had two children, Gertrude and Hans. Unfortunately, Alois’s marriage to Cecille would only last 7 years with Cecilie passing away in 1901. It was shortly after Cecille’s passing that Alzheimer would make the decision to move to Munich on Emil Kraepelin’s invitation.

In 1913 on his way to Breslau, Germany to take up the post of chair of the department of psychology at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Alzheimer caught a severe cold complicated by endocarditis. Never fully recovering, he died in 1915 at the age of 51 and was buried next to his wife in the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt am Main.

Today, the pathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is still generally based on the same investigative methods used in 1906. This is remarkable compared with the development of investigative methods for other diseases, and it speaks volumes about the quality of Alzheimer’s discovery.