In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (neurofibrillary or tau, tangles). These plaques and tangles in the brain are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. Another feature is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Neurons transmit messages between different parts of the brain, and from the brain to muscles and organs in the body.
Though autopsy studies show that most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age, those with Alzheimer’s tend to develop far more and in a predictable pattern, beginning in the areas important for memory before spreading to other regions. Scientists do not know exactly what role plaques and tangles play in Alzheimer’s disease. Most experts believe they somehow play a critical role in blocking communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive. It’s the destruction and death of nerve cells that causes memory failure, personality changes, problems carrying out daily activities and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists continue to unravel the complex brain changes involved in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. It seems likely that changes in the brain may begin a decade or more before memory and other cognitive problems appear. During this preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease, people seem to be symptom-free, but toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain. Once-healthy neurons stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die. Many other complex brain changes are thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s, too.
The damage initially appears to take place in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex; parts of the brain essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, additional parts of the brain are affected and begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.