On Saturday, 3 November, 1906, Alois Alzheimer traveled from Munich, where he lived and worked, to Tuebingen. That afternoon, he was to address the 37th convention of Southwestern German psychiatrists, who were then called, cruelly, “Irrenaerzte” (“insanity doctors, alienists”). Eighty-eight colleagues filled the auditorium in the Clinic of Psychiatry at the University of Tuebingen, including Franz Nissl of tissue stain and Nissl body fame, and the child psychologist C. G. Jung. To them, Alzheimer presented his first, signature case of the disease that his boss Emil Kraepelin would later name in honor of his protégée. Alzheimer recounted in meticulous detail how Auguste D’s unusual disease had progressed. He also projected images of the plaques and tangles that he spotted in her brain after she had died in Frankfurt and he’d had her brain shipped in a wooden crate by train to Munich. Alas, his prescient observations met with deafening silence. No one asked a question. The local newspaper, Tuebinger Chronik, laconically noted Alzheimer’s talk in one sentence: “Private docent Dr. Alzheimer (Munich) reported a curious, severe disease process that caused significant shrinkage of nerve cells within 4.5 years.” The newspaper devoted most of its convention coverage to more fashionable issues in psychiatry at the time: hypnotic sleep to cure anxiety, childhood trauma as the cause of adult melancholy, and more generally an impassioned debate about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. As a group, psychiatrists were not ready to contemplate disturbances of the mind as specific organic diseases of the brain.

One hundred years and 20 million patients later, 180 scientists and guests from all over the world met in the same graceful building on a hillside above the medieval town of Tuebingen to commemorate Alzheimer’s achievement in three days of public and scientific events. Led by Mathias Jucker, at the Hertie Institute in Tuebingen, the organizers decided to host the conference in the historic clinic. Because seating there is limited, the organizers were unable to invite as many scientists as they wished. To share the event more widely, they have made an on-demand video stream of both full days of scientific talks freely available for download. For this reason, this news story will not cover any presentation in detail. Rather, it offers tidbits of the flavor and themes at this unique event. This story aims chiefly to remind busy scientists why it’s well worth their time to forgo cherished evening reruns of Law and Order, or even to give up a perfectly good day in the lab, and instead watch this program.

The first day afforded a luxury in which young investigators can rarely indulge: a look back in time to the early pioneers in AD research, with talks given by Robert Terry himself, looking fit and feisty as ever, along with colleagues who worked with him. The second day featured current concepts and a session that expressly encouraged wild predictions about the future. This session offered hilarity as some speakers hedged for fear of “making an elephant’s ass out of themselves,” while others proclaimed themselves perfectly happy to do so and prophesied away.

Some talks were emotional as pioneers shared memories of colleagues who have passed away. Some illuminated historical context as speakers quizzed each other on how they interpreted their key findings in the conceptual framework of the time. Be transported back to a time when research was conducted—quelle horreure!—without computers, without PubMed, without Western blots or antibodies. You will find animated discussion about what people thought in those early days when the data stared them in the face but the implications had not been worked out yet. For a look back, a look around, and then a look to the future, readers may want to consider running the program in lunch hours and journal clubs and discussing it with their students and postdocs. Importantly, watch the program to remind yourself of the many colleagues who coauthored the milestone discoveries listed in the program, or who were independently working on the very same problem.

Here are some selected historic teasers. Terry recalled Robert Katzman’s 1976 editorial in Archives of Neurology that attracted neurologists and biochemists to a small field that had before been the province of neuropathologists including Henry Wisniewski. Katzman spread the idea that early onset AD and what was called senile dementia are largely one disease. This put AD on the map as a public health issue and set the stage for the founding of the National Institute on Aging and a steep increase in research funding under its AD program director Zaven Khatchaturian, who helped build a national AD research infrastructure. Khalid Iqbal dug up original data on early work to isolate tangles gathered before the advent of now-ubiquitous techniques such as immunoprecipitation. Peter Davies recalled scientists’ excitement when they began to understand the cholinergic deficit in AD. The first chance of treatment emerged on the horizon as the scientists hoped to repeat the success of the Viennese physician-researcher Oleh Hornykiewicz, who experimented with clinical use of L-dopa and laid the groundwork for the subsequent introduction in1967 of oral L-dopa as the first effective drug to treat a neurodegenerative disease. Davies recalled how his collaborators experimented in the clinic, treating AD patients with choline bought from a pharmacy across the street. The subsequent development of today’s widely used cholinesterase inhibitors is history, though they help less with AD than L-dopa does with PD.

A special highlight of the conference was the appearance of Cai’ne Wong, who published his seminal work isolating β amyloid while he was a technician with George Glenner. Wong had left science for a career in writing, and most AD researchers working today have never seen him. In his search for original research records, Wong discovered that many had been inadvertently destroyed a few years after Glenner’s lab was disbanded following his early death from a systemic amyloidosis. Glenner was a competitor of Colin Masters, but also a frequent collaborator, as Masters himself noted in Tuebingen. Indeed, the two had met to basically divvy up the prize, deciding that Glenner would go after vessel amyloid and Masters after the core plaques.

Wong also said that Glenner was so disenchanted with the journals Nature and Science that he did not even consider submitting his seminal discovery to them, publishing it instead in Biochem & Biophy Research Communications. In absentia, Nature or Science editors took repeated stabs on the familial theme that they sometimes don’t know a good thing when they see it. Take heart, researchers everywhere; you are in good company! For example, few American AD researchers know that Jean-Pierre Brion at the Free University of Brussels Medical School published a landmark paper on tau protein in neurofibrillary tangles as early as 1985, three years before Michel Goedert confirmed and extended his findings. Why? Nature had snubbed Brion and he then decided against English altogether, publishing instead in French in Archives de Biologie (Bruxelles). And not all will know that as early as 1987, before proteasomal degradation was understood, Yasuo Ihara already showed that ubiquitin is an integral part of neurofibrillary tangles. (In their defense, this last finding the Science editors were prepared for.)

Also already in the 1980s, imaging hippocampal atrophy for an early diagnosis of AD began to take shape with the pioneering work of Mony de Leon, first with CT but soon after with MRI and PET. Sadly, one of his more important papers appeared in PNAS on September 11, 2001, just as he, a New Yorker, saw the towers fall, de Leon told the audience.

Konrad Beyreuther is credited with breaking, by an inch, the tape across the publication finish line in the fierce 1986 race to clone the APP gene. Other groups who hotly pursued APP include Dmitry Goldgaber and Carlton Gajdusek, Rudi Tanzi and Rachael Neve (both published a day after Beyreuther), Nikolaos Robakis and Henry Wisniewski, Barbara Cordell (who filed a patent), and also Carmela Abraham, Dennis Selkoe, and Huntington Potter, who instead cloned the amyloid plaque component α1-antichymotrypsin. These rivalries were recalled when Beyreuther noted the day and minute when his group first knew they had the right clone (23 October 1986, 11:12 p.m.), and Goldgaber recalled his research leading up to the clone he presented at that year’s Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C. At the time, the field considered APP cleavage mostly abnormal. That began to change in 1992, when Christian Haass and colleagues in Dennis Selkoe’s group showed that cells throughout the body normally make and secrete the Aβ peptide. The next big prize many labs are chasing these days is a high-resolution crystal structure of APP, or of presenilin and other γ-secretase complex components.

A theme that reached from the historic session into the future concepts session is the idea of genetic heterogeneity in neurodegenerative disease. Peter St. George-Hyslop started the thought when he chose to speak about it rather than about the finding he is best known for, that is, the discovery of the presenilin 1 gene. His earlier realization, published in 1990, that changes in several different genes can cause Alzheimer disease, broadened the field and has been widely borne out. Other speakers extended the notion to speculate that neurodegeneration will in the future be considered a spectrum disorder. Christine van Broeckhoven suggested that forms of hemorrhagic stroke, Alzheimer disease, and frontotemporal dementias can be reasonably seen as occurring on a continuum, and Monique Breteler noted that overlaps between these different origins of dementia are seen at the level of imaging and human symptoms. Furthermore, Virginia Lee outlined significant overlap at the level of pathology across a range of dementing disorders involving the proteins tau and α-synuclein.

The future session saw talk about prevention. Breteler cautioned that population-based prevention strategies eventually will have to deal with the way dementia occurs most often, that is, mixed up with numerous co-morbidities. She urged that ways be developed to treat dementia in community populations, not just AD in carefully defined and selected groups as is done for clinical trials. Another prediction is that we will be able to deal with AD much like doctors handle atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease these days: use a simple, fluid-based test to screen people for their risk of developing AD and prescribe a preventive medicine, if needed. Nick Fox held out the provocative notion that we will carry data about our brain on memory sticks, that is, that we will obtain high-resolution brain scans periodically in mid-life that will alert us to the first signs of atrophy or metabolic loss and tell us when to intervene therapeutically. Such scans would represent a sort of reverse growth chart of the brain from the ones used in routine pediatric care. No matter which vision the speakers favored, they agreed that the field needs to find designs for smaller, faster, cheaper prevention trials than the ones considered the gold standard today. An urgent priority toward that goal is that a biomarker be validated in the context of a clinical trial. Then it could be accepted as a surrogate outcome first in small, focused intervention trials, and eventually serve to shorten prevention trials. All this will still take at least two decades, Breteler estimated.

The amyloid hypothesis continues to dominate the field, perhaps even more so now that its first fruits are being put to the test in the clinic. Even while this is happening, however, John Hardy called on the field to consider alternative explanations of the available data. He said he is troubled by “too much good news” in that amyloid deposition is all too easy to treat in mice, even as the leap from mice to humans seems as questionable as ever. Efforts to translate mouse treatments to humans have either failed, shown feeble effects, or are still underway. Hardy urged that the field not take clinical success of the amyloid hypothesis for granted and put effort into developing more rigorous alternatives. Two ideas Hardy considered worth exploring are the presenilin inhibition hypothesis advanced by Jie Shen and others, and a little-noticed suggestion that Aβ serves a role in sealing blood vessels, advanced by Craig Atwood and colleagues. A geneticist, Hardy also urged his colleagues not to assume that genetics will be able to explain all risk for neurodegenerative disease, but to take the power of stochastic events into account as well. The conference closed with a plea from Bengt Winblad not to dismiss people with advanced AD as beyond help. Even in a completely mute state, the person remains, and deserves the best care to the end. The conference dinner welcomed conference-goers at the same restaurant that the 37th psychiatry convention had patronized in 1906. And the event closed with Harald Steiner’s announcement that the Hans and Ilse Breuer Foundation will award its 2007 Alzheimer research prize to Eva-Maria Mandelkow to advance her research on the role of tau protein.

If these morsels alone didn’t whet your appetite to take in two full days of talks, consider this: watching the show will arm you with enough AD trivia to shine at lab beer hours for some time to come. For example, find out what’s up with King Kong wrestling a recalcitrant tau protein. Find out why Peter Davies’s coworkers didn’t inhale when they ran their first attempts at AD therapy. While taking down your Halloween decorations, discover why Konrad Beyreuther and Colin Masters once held hands over Kraepelin’s grave. Did you know antibodies in Dennis Selkoe’s lab have female names? (To find out why: ask Carmela Abraham.) You will hear that Beyreuther’s lab discovered they had a full-length clone of a membrane protein on 3 November 1986, the same day Alzheimer presented in Tuebingen. Find out why Christine van Broeckhoven showed up for her lecture flanked by security guards. To end on a serious and celebratory note, find out why van Broeckhoven’s outsized likeness shone down on travelers this year at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. (Hint: major award.)—Gabrielle Strobel.

image

Venue of Alzheimer's 1906 lecture, 2006 conference.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Tuebingen’s historic marketplace.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Historic town of Tuebingen along the river...
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

...Neckar, Alzheimer's student stomping ground for one semester.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

The scientific advisory board.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Christian Haas.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Simone Eberle with Dennis Selkoe.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Dmitry Goldgaber and Colin Masters.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Colin Masters and John Hardy.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

John Hardy.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Cai’ne Wong.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

John Morris, Monique Breteler, and Mony de Leon.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Colin Masters and Christine van Broeckhoven.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Christine van Broeckhoven and Yves Christen.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Todd Golde and Takeshi Iwatsubo. Background: Steve Younkin.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Maria Grazia Spillantini and Michael Simm. Background: Boris Schmidt and Jacek Biernat.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Takeshi Iwatsubo giving an interview to a Japanese television station.
Image credit: Yves Christen

 

image

Virginia Lee with (l to r) Peter Davies, Mony de Leon, and Gerard Schellenberg.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Jean-Pierre Brion and Luc Buee.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Dennis Selkoe and Uwe Konietzko.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Don Price.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Brad Hyman and Karen Hsiao-Ashe.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Bernardino Ghetti, Michel Goedert, Maria Grazia Spillantini, June Kinoshita, and Charles Duyckaerts.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad and Leon Thal.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Tauist (and more) reunion: John Trojanowski, Virginia Lee, Michel Goedert, and Yasuo Ihara.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Peter Davies.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Heiko Braak.
Image credit: Heiko Braak

 

image

Blas Frangione.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Eckhart Mandelkow and Robert Terry.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Gerard Schellenberg.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Nick Fox and Leon Thal.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

(L to R) Blas Frangione, Rudy Tanzi, Philip Wong, Cai'ne Wong.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Steve and Linda Younkin.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

"Alois Alzheimer" and Carmela Abraham at lunch.
Image credit: Carmela Abraham

 

image

Karen Duff and John Hardy.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Alexander Drzezga.
Image credit: Catherine Mervaillie

 

image

Leon Thal and Dale Schenk.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Dale Schenk.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Bill Klunk, John Morris, and Bud Kukull.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Rudy Tanzi and David Holtzman.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

John Trojanowski giving a speech in German.
Image credit: Eckhart Mandelkow

 

image

Falk Fahrenholz.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Robert Cherny, Roberto Cappai, and Mark Shearman.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Konrad Beyreuther and Sam Sisodia.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Bengt Winblad.
Image credit: Catherine Mervaillie

 

image

Carl Cotman and Jacqueline Mervaillie.
Image credit: Yves Christen

 

image

Bart de Strooper.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

image

Roger Nitsch.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie

 

Comments

Make a Comment

To make a comment you must login or register.

Comments on this content

  1. If you have the slightest interest in the history of Alzheimer's Disease and its potential therapies, these two days of video from the Alzheimers:100 Years and Beyond are a "Must see before I die". All the best in life will be found with this cream of specialists willingly sharing their expertise in the field of Alzheimers Disease. *****

  2. What a celebration of past and present pioneers in the field of Alzheimer's. I give it ***** must see. We as a society owe a debt of gratitude to the memory of George Glenner.

References

External Citations

  1. public and scientific events
  2. on-demand video stream
  3. 2007 Alzheimer research prize
  4. major award

Further Reading

No Available Further Reading