Skin May Hold the Key to Early Detection for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease

While the diseases affect the brain, the skin may be the key to detection before symptoms like memory loss appear.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Julianne Moore’s Best Actress win at this year’s Academy Awards, for her role as a 50 year-old woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, brought the neuro degenerative disease into the spotlight once more.

Early detection is crucial in doctor’s ability to help treat or alleviate Alzheimer’s symptoms and increase the likelihood of survival. However, Alzheimer’s disease can begin 15 to 20 years before symptoms appear, making it especially hard to prepare for when when the disease starts attacking a person’s memory. Now new research from scientists at Central Hospital at University of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, indicates that a skin test could detect the disease early.

The study, which will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, found that patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease had seven times higher levels of a protein called tau in skin biopsies compared to healthy patients and even those with age-related dementia, according to Time. Parkinson’s patients’ skin biopsies also revealed seven to eight times higher levels of another harmful protein called alpha-synuclein.

Researchers still don’t know quite what the role of alpha-synuclein’s is in the brain. However, in Parkinson’s patients, the protein has a tendency to clump and interrupt normal, healthy nerve function. Scientists know more about the other protein tau, specifically that it is involved in the brain decline of Alzheimer’s patients, more rapid than average memory loss with aging. When nerve cells die, the molecules of tau, normally aligned to act like railroad tracks and transport nutrients, collapse and become unorganized, non-functioning lumps of tangled protein.

“This skin test opens the possibility to see abnormal proteins in the skin before central nervous system symptoms—cognitive or motor deficits—appear,” Dr. Ildefonso Rodriguez-Leyva, the lead researcher in the new study, told Time.

“The ectoderm originates the nervous tissue and the skin,” he explained to Time. “Our idea is that they have a similar program of protein expression. Therefore the skin could reflect events taking place in the nervous system.”

The study had a relatively small sample size of 20 patients with Alzheimer’s, 16 with Parkinson’s, and 17 with age-related dementia, compared to a control group of 12 healthy individuals, but it could be the beginning of more efficient treatments created by targeting these specific proteins.

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