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2019 Biomarkers Across Neurodegenerative Diseases Grant (BAND)

Skin Biomarkers as Diagnostic Tests Across Neurodegenerative Diseases

Can skin samples be used to diagnose a variety of brain disorders?

Wenquan Zou, M.D., Ph.D.
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH - United States


Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are both brain diseases characterized by abnormally-shaped proteins in the brain. In Alzheimer’s, the misfolded tau protein forms tau tangles; Parkinson’s disease features clumps of misfolded alpha-synuclein protein as well as tau tangles. Currently, however, the only way to determine the exact levels of tau and alpha-synuclein in the brain — and make a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s — is by examining brain tissue of individuals who had the disease. There is, therefore, a critical need to develop less invasive tests that can accurately diagnose individuals with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
According to recent studies, people with brain disorders have abnormal levels of proteins in their skin cells as well as their brain. By analyzing protein content in the skin samples of living individuals, clinicians may be able to determine whether those individuals have specific brain changes related to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or other brain diseases.

Research Plan

Dr. Wenquan Zou and colleagues plan to test the value of skin samples as a diagnostic tool for a variety of brain disorders. Their effort will involve a novel technology for measuring levels of misfolded tau and alpha synuclein in skin cells. Using this method, Dr. Zou will analyze skin samples from people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other related disorders. The researchers will assess whether their technology can determine (1) tau levels characteristic of Alzheimer’s and (2) tau and alpha-synuclein levels characteristic of Parkinson’s. Dr. Zou will also determine whether their method can distinguish people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease from people who have other brain disorders linked to tau or alpha-synuclein


Dr. Zou’s project could promote a cost-effective and minimally invasive method for diagnosing brain disease at an early stage, when treatments can be most beneficial.   

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