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A History of Alzheimer's Disease

Progressive mental deterioration in old age has been recognized and described throughout history. However, it was not until 1906 that a German physician, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, specifically identified a collection of brain cell abnormalities as a disease. One of Dr. Alzheimer's patients died after years of severe memory problems, confusion and difficulty understanding questions. Upon her death, while performing a brain autopsy, the doctor noted dense deposits surrounding the nerve cells (neuritic plaques). Inside the nerve cells he observed twisted bands of fibers (neurofibrillary tangles). Today, this degenerative brain disorder bears his name, and when found during an autopsy, these plaques and tangles mean a definite diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD).

Since its discovery more than 100 years ago, there have been many scientific breakthroughs in AD research. In the 1960s, scientists discovered a link between cognitive decline and the number of plaques and tangles in the brain. The medical community then formally recognized Alzheimer's as a disease and not a normal part of aging. In the 1970s, scientists made great strides in understanding the human body as a whole, and AD emerged as a significant area of research interest. This increased attention led in the 1990s to important discoveries and a better understanding of complex nerve cells in the brains of AD patients. More research was done on AD susceptibility genes, and several drugs were approved to treat the cognitive symptoms of the disease.

Over the last decade, scientists have substantially progressed in understanding potential environmental, genetic and other risk factors for AD, the processes leading to formation of plaques and tangles in the brain, and the brain regions that are affected. Specific genes related to both the early-onset and late-onset forms of AD have been identified, but genetic risk factors alone do not fully explain its causes, so researchers are actively exploring environment and lifestyle to learn what role they might play in the development of this disease. More effective treatment options have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, AD is still incurable. The drugs currently in use treat only the symptoms, not the cause of the disorder, and they only slow the progression of cognitive decline.

Last Review: 04/15/14


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