Dr. Alzheimer and the patient who helped reveal a devastating disease

June 15, 2017

Dr. Alzheimer and the patient who helped reveal a devastating disease

PBS Newshour

It is fitting that a disease of forgetting is named for a person who is all but forgotten.

June 21 marks the 153rd birthday of Alois Alzheimer, the German psychiatrist who is often credited for first describing the clinical and micro-anatomic features of a brain disease that steals the memories of millions of people each year.

There are, of course, many causes of dementia, a term derived from the Latin word, ‘demens,’ which means “without mind.” (The prefix ‘de’ connotes “off” or “not” and the noun ‘mens’ refers to the mind).

Most commonly described among the elderly, the devastating loss of memory and other cognitive functions associated with dementia can result from traumatic injuries to the head and brain, cerebro-vascular events, or strokes, untreated metabolic and endocrine diseases, and many other maladies.

For centuries, doctors had no clue as to the cause or causes of dementia. Even when autopsies were conducted at various points of history, brain analyses were not always performed and when they were, poorly understood. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, more and more scientists began to search for the anatomical seat of specific diseases and this was especially so with the pathology of many entities all lumped together under the term “senile dementia.”

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