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The famous faces in the study of dementia

You’ve probably heard a lot about the diseases they discovered or the drugs they created. Find out more about the scientists behind the biggest dementia breakthroughs

Who: Alois Alzheimer

Alois Alzheimer was a German psychiatrist and neurologist, born in 1864, who started working in a state asylum and then became interested in brain research and diseases of the brain. In 1901 he met a female patient who was to change his life. Her name was Auguste Deter, she came to him, aged 51, suffering from short term memory loss and saying ‘I have lost myself.’ Her condition worsened into severe dementia and she died aged 55.

His big discovery
During an autopsy, Alzheimer examined August Deter’s brain under a microscope and described the ‘plaques’ he saw in the usually empty spaces between nerve cells and ‘tangles’ of string-like substances. The following year, in 1907, he delivered a lecture about his former patient in which he said she had suffered ‘an unusual disease of the cerebral cortex.’ The lecture was to make him famous and the plaques and tangles he described became known as Alzheimer’s disease.

Three facts worth knowing
• Alzheimer’s called the condition he discovered pre-senile dementia. It was his boss Emil Kraepelin who coined the phrase ‘Alzheimer’s disease.’
• However, Alzheimer believed that the disease he discovered was rare and generally only affected people under the age of 65.
• Alzheimer’s work also contributed to our understanding of other diseases such as vascular dementia, Huntingdon’s disease brain tumours and epilepsy.

Did you know? Alzheimer’s smoked cigars all day as he worked with students in the laboratory. At the end of each day there would be a cigar stump at nearly every student’s workstation. Alois Alzheimer died, aged only 51, from heart failure.

Who: Frederic H Lewy

Dr Frederic Lewy was a young German scientist who worked in the University of Munich’s department of psychiatry.

His big discovery
In 1912 he was working in Alois Alzheimer’s laboratory when he described several unique abnormalities in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s disease. These abnormal structures (microscopic protein deposits found in deteriorating nerve cells) became known as ‘Lewy bodies’ in his honour. They are now seen as characteristic indicators of Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Did you know? Lewy was Jewish and fled from Nazi Germany in 1934 to the USA. He became a US citizen, changed his name to Lewey and served in the US army against Germany in World War II.

Who: Sergei Korsakoff

A Russian psychiatrist born in 1887, who studied in Vienna and is often considered ‘one of the greatest psychiatrists of the 19th century.’

His big discovery
Korsakoff studied the effects of alcoholism in great detail and took particular interest in its connection with memory loss. In medical papers he described ‘the disturbances of memory in long term alcohol abuse’ which later became known as Korsakoff Syndrome.

Who: Professor Arnold Pick

Arnold Pick was a German-Jewish neurologist who studied medicine in Vienna and worked at the University of Prague and in a psychiatric hospital.

His big discovery
In 1892 he described a form of dementia which included progressive loss of speech and was previously unheard of. Pick discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes were most affected by this type of dementia and that they contained unusual protein deposits which became known as ‘Pick bodies.’ Pick’s Disease, also called frontotemporal dementia, is now recognised as a rare form of dementia accounting for around 5 per cent of all dementia types.

Did you know? Pick’s ability to record the history of a psychotic or mute patient was legendary. His secretary was a manic depressive and an inmate of the asylum where he worked.

Who: Robert Katzman

An American neurologist and researcher who also founded the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centre in the US.

His big discovery
Katzman persuaded the medical community to change its view of Alzheimer’s which, until then, was still considered a rare disease which only affected people under the age of 65.

In the 1970’s Katzman’s research revealed that Alzheimer’s was, in fact, a ‘major killer’ which was also prevalent in older people and should be considered a major public health issue. His work went on to change attitudes and raise awareness, and led to a massive increase in funding for research into the disease.

Did you know? After his death in 2008 colleagues noted that Katzman’s key goal was ‘that everyone must hear of Alzheimer’s disease, understand and defeat it.’

Who: Thomas Kitwood

A British psychologist and pioneer in the field of dementia care

His big discovery
Kitwood was responsible for developing a ‘person-centred’ approach to dementia care in the 1990’s which is now implemented worldwide and has played a major part in improving the care of people with dementia both in the community and in care homes. Putting the person before the disease is at the heart of Kitwood’s approach which is described in detail in his award-winning book Dementia Reconsidered: the person comes first (1997). The philosophy to ‘treat others in a way you yourself would like to be treated’ underpinned everything Kitwood believed in and earnt him international respect and recognition. He died in 1998 aged 61.

Did you know? Kitwood originally trained for the priesthood and was ordained in 1962 but later married and renounced any particular religious attachment.

Who: Dr Hachiro Sugimoto

A Japanese chemist and pharmacologist. Born the eighth of nine children in a poor part of Tokyo, he worked his way up to the top of a major pharmaceutical company and became passionate about finding drug treatments for dementia when his mother was diagnosed with the condition.

His big discovery
In 1983 Sugimoto began research on a drug known then as E2020. Shortly after this his mother passed away. The drug was finally made available in the UK in 1997 under the name Donepezil (Aricept) and although it doesn’t offer a cure for Alzheimer’s it remains one of the only drugs which can slow down its progression.