Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neuropathologist, was the first identify and name Alzheimer’s Disease in 1906. He had been treating a middle-aged woman who exhibited symptoms of memory loss and disorientation. Five years later, the patient died after symptoms of dementia and suffering hallucinations. The manifestations and course of the disease were so unusual that Dr. Alzheimer was unable to classify the disease into any existing category. Postmortem examination of the brain revealed microscopic and macroscopic lesions and distortions, including neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic plaques.
Although it has been more than a century since the disease was identified, it has been only within the last four decades that it has received recognition. In the past, symptoms were attributed to the “senility” of old age and victims were cared for at home. The problems of dementia were gradually recognized as an issue associated with the older population, but the nature of the disease and how to treat it were still a mystery. In the 1970s, researchers determined that people with Alzheimer’s disease had a neurochemical deficiency. This enabled them to study the disease in more detail and separate patients with Alzheimer’s disease from those with dementia of normal aging.
Researchers and scientist are conducting studies to learn more about plaques, tangles, and other biological features of Alzheimer’s disease. There have been great dvances in brain imaging techniques which allow researchers to see the development and spread of abnormal amyloid and tau proteins in the living brain, as well as changes in brain structure and function. Scientists are also exploring the very earliest steps in the disease process by studying changes in the brain and body fluids that can be detected years before Alzheimer’s symptoms appear. The findings from these studies will help in understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s and make diagnosis easier.
One of the great mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is why it largely strikes older adults. Research on normal brain aging is shedding light on this question. For example, scientists are learning how age-related changes in the brain may harm neurons and contribute to Alzheimer’s damage. These age-related changes include atrophy (shrinking) of certain parts of the brain, inflammation, production of unstable molecules called free radicals, and mitochondrial dysfunction (a breakdown of energy production within a cell).
INR offers continuing educations courses that will present the elements of pathology, medical treatment, and care of victims of this progressive disease. It is hoped that the continued research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease will provide some of the necessary information about the prevention and treatment of this relentless and socially damaging disease.