5 Things You Never Knew About Alzheimer’s

In The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s, award-winning science writer Jay Ingram shares the history of the debilitating disease, from its discovery in the early 20th century to where the search for better treatments — and hopefully, a cure — stands today. Here, five facts Ingram dug up that piqued our interest.

1. The First Thing That Happens to a Brain with Alzheimer’s Isn’t What You Think
We associate Alzheimer’s with two main changes in the brain: the buildup of amyloid plaques between neurons and tangles of tau protein within neurons. But the first sign of the disease in the brain is actually a loss of synapses that pass information from neuron to neuron. Once they go, the neurons follow suit (a dramatic decrease in neurons is also a hallmark of the disease). It’s even possible to have a brain full of plaques and tangles and be sharp as a tack. In one study (aptly named the Nun Study), a group of nuns agreed to let researchers track their health, behaviors, mental status and, in the end, autopsy their brains. One participant in particular stood out: Sister Mary lived to the ripe old age of 101 and appeared to be smart, alert and attentive until the end. But when researchers examined her brain, they found that it was brimming with plaques and tangles.

2. “Dear Abby” Helped Bring It Into the Spotlight
In 1906, when a group of psychiatrists were told about the very first patient diagnosed with what we now call Alzheimer’s (by Alois Alzheimer himself), not one asked him a question. The chairman of the meeting actually remarked, “Clearly there is no desire for discussion.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that Alzheimer’s was recognized as a disease and not, as previously —> Read More