How the world’s first Alzheimer’s patient was forgotten

Recently, I came upon a touching video. The clip begins with a daughter asking her father, who has dementia, why he was freaking out at being called “dad”.

“Because I don’t think I’m your dad,” he says.

So, she asks him who he thinks he is. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I’m obviously somebody.”

My grandmother-I call her Dumma has dementia too. And lately, my mom’s no ticed that Dumma sometimes Just sits and stares at her face. When mom asks her why, she says, “I’m trying to cement your face in my memory.”

It’s almost morbidly poetic that we get to live to our nineties, even cross a hundred these days, but our memories of all those decades lived can simply disap pear, leaving us without a sense of self. Who are we then? We are obviously somebody.


A lot of us today know Alzheimer’s disease as a kind of dementia. But the person who was key to this knowledge isn’t that well known. Her name was Auguste Deter.

In March 1901, Karl, the husband of 51-year-old Auguste, had noticed some peculiar changes in her. She was having trouble with her memory; she would often be confused and disoriented; she was showing uncharacteristic jealousy toward Karl; and sometimes she would begin to scream loudly So, on November 25, Auguste was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. There, a doctor named Alois Alzheimer began examining her.

He started off with simple questions. What is your name, Alois asked. She responded, Auguste. What’s your husband’s name, he asked. Auguste, I think, she said. At lunch, which was cauliflower and pork, Alois asked her what she was eating. Spinach, she said.

This state of confusion lasted for the entire duration of Auguste’s stay at the hospital until she died in April 1906. Alois, who was working at Munich at the time, asked for her records and brain to be sent to him. For a long time, he had mulled over the idea that, just like other diseases show up in some part of the body, psychiatric diseases would show up in the brain. He just needed to prove it. And when he examined Auguste’s brain, he did find changes that are today associated with the disease that was named after Alois Alzheimer himselfAlzheimer’s disease. First, there was extensive loss of neurons in her brain’s cortex, a layer that’s associated with memory, language, thoughts and problem solving. Second, there were abnormal [protein] deposits inside and in between the nerve cells.

Interestingly, the detailed notes that Alois took about Auguste were actually “lost” for more than 90 years. They were only discovered in the 1990s in the dusty archives of a Frankfurt hospital. It was this discovery that finally shed light on the woman who made Alzheimer a famous name today.


On a lighter note, I went down a rabbit hole of ‘baby talk’ recently You know, the “ale, cho chweeeet” and “heiiiiii” way of talking to babies, where our voices go up a notch, we slow down our words and exaggerate them incoherently?

There’s a lot of research look ing at why we speak this way, especially to babies. Some theories suggest it helps babies process and learn words better than when spoken to in a ‘normal’ adult tone. Others say it helps bables develop an intimate emo tional bond with their caregiver. There is also the idea that bables probably tune out adult conver sations, but baby-talk instantly catches their attention, where they know they’re being spoken to.

But then, we also baby talk with folks who aren’t babies. Many adults in relationships speak to each other this way. According to some researchers, it might be a way for adults to show their silly side to each other, away from the watchful eyes of society. In public, it might signal affection, although it can also be a sign that the person is patronising and manipulative.

We also baby-talk with animals like dogs and cats, no matter how old they are. It can’t be because we want them to learn how to talk like us. Rather, some researchers think, we baby-talk with our pets because we see them as having a harder time understanding us. So we slip into the same slow, exaggerated and singsong way of speaking as we do with infants. And like babies, animals probably also tune out adult conversations, so it could be a way for us to get their attention.

But hold on. We humans can’t be the only species on this planet doing this strange “hili poochie” thing. Turns out, we’re not [of course).

Researchers have found that some birds, bats and monkeys baby-talk too! Take zebra finches, a kind of songbird, for example. A study found that adult zebra finches sing differently when talking to baby finches than they do with other adults. Around the babies, the adults seem to repeat notes, and make their songs slower and more musical. In fact, in an experiment, baby finches who were taught songs in baby-talk mastered those songs better than the babies who were played recordings of adult-conversation-style songs.

Some bats, like the greater sac-winged bat, also seem to be doing it. Again, researchers have found that the adult bats produce a very different call when around their babies than with other adults. Similarly, monkeys like rhesus macaques-the same ones you find trying to storm into homes in Delhi and Dehradun-also have a form of baby talk. It’s a softer, slower cooing sound, perhaps intended to get the baby’s attention and help it learn to interact.

There must be many other animals that baby-talk. All we have to do is listen closely.