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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for up to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Although a way to change the underlying Alzheimer’s process has not been discovered yet, diagnosing the disease early provides a number of opportunities including:

  • Start treatment sooner which can preserve function for a longer period of time
  • Allow Alzheimer’s patients and their families to make living arrangements, establish support networks and plan for the future

Scientists continue to look for ways to enable physicians to diagnose Alzheimer’s at an early stage in a more accurate manner. Besides memory and recall tests, the National Institute on Aging points out that there are a number of areas that show some promise. For example, advanced imaging systems may help measure the initial changes in brain function or structure to identify individuals who are in the very first stages of Alzheimer’s (long before they develop symptoms). Other tests look for the presence of certain proteins that are typically found in people with Alzheimer’s. The analysis of body fluids such as blood and cerebrospinal fluid can determine the presence of tau and beta-amyloid proteins.

A recent study at Mexico’s University of San Luis Potosi found a possible link to the skin of a patient. More specifically, researchers discovered that a skin sample taken from behind a patient’s ear showed tau protein levels seven times higher in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. The study’s author, Dr. Ildefonso Rodriguez-Leyva, explained that pathological confirmation was not possible without a brain biopsy until now. Consequently, diseases like Alzheimer’s often go unrecognized until after the disease has progressed. His team hypothesized that skin might show the same abnormal proteins as brain tissue, because skin and brain tissue have the same origin while in the embryo. This new test provides a possible biomarker that could allow physicians to identify diseases such as Alzheimer’s at an earlier point.

Dr. Rodriguez-Leyva is optimistic about the work. “More research is needed to confirm these results, but the findings are exciting because we could potentially begin to use skin biopsies from living patients to study and learn more about these diseases…This also means tissue will be much more readily available for scientists to study.”


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Labomed CxL, Flickr)