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Alzheimer's - From Curiosity To Worldwide Disease

On Nov 3, 1906 the psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer presented a paper entitled "Regarding a curious disease of the cortex".//

Alzheimer's colleagues did not immediately recognise the importance of his discovery. One century later, the name of Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) is known across the globe.

In Germany alone, a country of 82 million people, between 700,000 to one million patients suffer from the brain disease named after the scientist. Worldwide over 20 million are said to have the disease.

A four-day conference starting in Tuebingen on Nov 2 intends to illuminate history and future of Alzheimer's research.

"When Alzheimer first announced his discovery, he only saw the final stage and had no idea about the dynamics of the illness. This has only been discovered afterwards," the host of the Alzheimer conference, Mathias Jucker says.

To date, no cure has been found for the disease.

"Even if we could find a way to stop Alzheimer from developing, and it would no longer pose a problem for society, the ageing brain remains a risk factor for a range of diseases," says the neurobiologist, who works at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research in Tuebingen.

"Not everyone gets Alzheimer, and it is not a normal consequence of ageing," Jucker insists in view of an increase of cases.

Alois Alzheimer's first patient, Auguste Deter, was only 51 years old when she was brought to the Frankfurt Institution for Lunatics and Epileptics.

The woman said she had "lost herself". Alzheimer was puzzled by her memory loss. Up to this point the patient had been healthy, did not have a history of psychological troubles and had not experienced anything traumatic.

Alzheimer meticulously documented Auguste's memory loss on 31 handwritten pages. His notes include conversations held with "Auguste D".

"What is your name?" "Auguste." - "Surname?" "Auguste". "What is your h usband's name?" "Auguste, I believe."

After the patient's death on April 8, 1906 at "1/4 to 6 in the morning", Alzheimer had Auguste Deter's brain sent to his lab. He discovered massive neuronal malfunction and deposits.

Half a year later, the physician from Tuebingen held a presentation at the congregation of southwest German alienists, where he declared, "My case Auguste D. is deviant from all known disease patterns."

Since, scientist understood that the disease is caused by a gradual degeneration of the neurones and usually sets on after the age of 65.

Many patients no longer recognise family members and friends, have orientation problems and struggle with speech.

"The presentation in Tuebingen did not necessarily get the hoped for attention," writes Alzheimer biographer Konrad Maurer.

Hundred years later, the situation has reversed. In view of an ageing society, Alzheimer's disease is regarded as the "widespread disease of the future".

The German Alzheimer Association expects that the number of Alzheimer patients in Germany will exceed two million by the year 2040.

Thomas Kunczik, manager of "Hirnliga", a German association of Alzheimer's researchers, hopes that the anniversary will boost prevention and therapy of brain diseases.

But Kunciyik is sceptical. "Alzheimer is still a frightening disease that many people prefer not to think about."

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