Through the Wormhole

Alois Alzheimer

Journey into a different time in medical science

In November 1906, German physician Alois Alzheimer gave a talk outlining the psychiatric symptoms and postmortem results of his late female patient, Auguste Deter. It was the first time the clinical and pathological findings of dementia were presented together.

Five years earlier, in 1901, Deter’s husband had admitted her to the Frankfurt psychiatric hospital where Alzheimer worked. Alzheimer’s detailed notes of interviews with Deter show she displayed progressive memory loss, hallucinations and erratic behaviour. Her condition worsened, and Deter passed away in 1906, at the age of 55.

Alzheimer, who was by this time working in Munich at the Royal Psychiatric Clinic, received permission from Deter’s family to do an autopsy of her brain.

Under a microscope, Alzheimer observed shrinkage of Deter’s cerebral cortex and the presence of unidentified plaques, tangles and hardened arteries in the brain. Her brain displayed what are now considered the hallmarks of this disease: loss of neurons and accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques.

Emil Kraepelin, Alois’s colleague and a pioneering figure in psychiatry—he is considered by many to be the founder of modern psychiatry—used the term “Alzheimer’s disease” in a textbook he wrote. This led to widespread adoption of the disorder’s eponymous name.