Guest article: The Disease of Forgetfulness

By Jami Hede of Exploring Dementia

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In 1901, German neuropsychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer took up a position at the Institution for the Mentally Ill and for Epileptics, in Frankfurt, Germany. One of the first patients he examined there was a woman named Auguste Deter, who was 51 years old. Just a few years previously, Frau Deter had been a happy wife and mother, living a normal life for the time period. But then she began showing symptoms of memory loss, trouble sleeping, delusions, temporary vegetative states, dragging sheets around the house, and screaming for hours in the middle of the night. Poor Karl Deter had no choice but to admit her to the institution, because he just couldn’t care for her any more, and also continue to work to support their daughter.

In 1996, Frau Deter’s actual medical records were discovered, written in Dr. Alzheimer’s own handwriting (and her own, at times). The neuropsychiatrist made careful and accurate transcriptions of his interviews with his patient, and a short excerpt of them is given here:

“What is your name?”
“Auguste.”
“Family name?”
“Auguste.”
“What is your husband’s name?” – she hesitates, finally answers:
“I believe … Auguste.”
“Your husband?”
“Oh, so!”
“How old are you?”
“Fifty-one.”
“Where do you live?”
“Oh, you have been to our place”
“Are you married?”
“Oh, I am so confused.”
“Where are you right now?”
“Here and everywhere, here and now, you must not think badly of me.”
“Where are you at the moment?”
“We will live there.”
“Where is your bed?”
“Where should it be?”

Dr. Alzheimer asked Frau Deter many questions, including a test of her memory, and also asked her to write her name. She attempted the latter, but repeated, “I have lost myself.” She was then put into an isolation room, and when released ran out screaming, “I do not cut myself. I will not cut myself.”

In subsequent writings, Dr. Alzheimer described his patient as having no sense of time or place, and poor recall for details of her life, made frequent irrelevant and incoherent statements, had rapid and sudden mood changes, and often “accosted” other patients (who would then assault her). He indicated that he had previously seen patients who showed similar behaviors, but they were much older than Frau Deter. He used the term “presenile dementia” to describe her, and stated that she had the “Disease of Forgetfulness.”

In 1902, Dr. Alzheimer took up a position in Munich, where he worked with another neuropsychiatrist named Dr. Emil Kraepelin. (Dr. Kraepelin is quite well-known, in his own right, for work in the area of schizophrenia and other disorders.) He continued to follow Frau Deter’s case, however, and in 1906 was notified of her death, apparently due to sepsis related to an infected bedsore. He requested that her medical records and her brain be sent to him for further study. It was upon examining her brain that he discovered the neurofibrillary tangles and plaques which are now considered characteristic of the disease.

Dr. Alzheimer gave a very significant presentation to the 37 Conference of South-West German Psychiatrists, in November of 1906, in which he discussed the case of one Auguste D. The following year, he published an article in which he described “A serious disease of the cerebral cortex.” However, the person who first coined the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” was Dr. Kraepelin, and not Alzheimer. He first did this in writings published in 1910.

And the rest is history, as they say. Now, the disease which bears Alzheimer’s name is the most common of many different forms of dementia which have been reported since his time.

Source material is from Wikipedia, “The Lancet,” and others. For more informative articles about dementia, visit Exploring Dementia.

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3 Comments

Filed under Awareness & Activism

3 responses to “Guest article: The Disease of Forgetfulness

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I enjoyed writing it.

  2. Pingback: The Disease of Forgetfulness | Exploring Dementia

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