Scientists in Mexico have discovered a skin test that may shed new light on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, according to a study released recently.
The study showed that skin biopsies can be used to detect elevated levels of abnormal proteins found in the two diseases. The results will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 67th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., April 18 to 25, 2015.
According to study author Ildefonso Rodriguez-Leyva, MD, from Central Hospital at the University of San Luis Potosi in San Luis Potosi, Mexico:
Until now, pathological confirmation was not possible without a brain biopsy, so these diseases often go unrecognized until after the disease has progressed. We hypothesized that since skin has the same origin as brain tissue while in the embryo that they might also show the same abnormal proteins. This new test offers a potential biomarker that may allow doctors to identify and diagnose these diseases earlier on.
According to the press release: "For the study, researchers took skin biopsies from 20 people with Alzheimer's disease, 16 with Parkinson's disease and 17 with dementia caused by other conditions and compared them to 12 healthy people in the same age group. They tested these skin samples to see if specific types of altered proteins were found – ones that indicate a person has Alzheimer's or Parkinson's."
Compared to healthy patients and ones with dementia caused by other conditions, those with both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's had tau protein levels that were seven times the control group. Individuals with Parkinson's also had alpha-synuclein protein levels that were eight times higher.
The Global Burden of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Globally, estimates indicate that 4.4 million individuals had Alzheimer’s in 2013, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. The number of people living with Alzheimer’s is expected to increase to 75.6 million by 2030. The majority of the increase is expected to come from developing countries, which accounted for 62% of people with dementia in 2013.
The cost of treating dementia was estimated at US $604 billion in 2010, approximately 70% of this is spent in Western Europe and North America. Financial costs include informal care (i.e., care from family members), direct care (i.e., community and residential centers), and medical care (treatment from healthcare providers and medications).
The Global Burden of Parkinson’s Disease
It is estimated that 6.3 million people have Parkinson’s disease worldwide. This number is expected to double by 2040. The cost of treating Parkinson’s worldwide is difficult to find, but the National Institute for Neurological Disorders estimates that the economic cost of Parkinson’s exceeds US $6 billion annually in the US alone.
Biomedical Research Essential for the Development of Innovative Treatments
Biomedical research, such as the San Luis Potosi study, is essential as scientists seek a better understanding of the causes of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This most recent study is important because surgery is not required to obtain skin biopsies. These findings have the potential to reduce the costs associated with research, while at the same time, increase the number of people who would be willing and able to participate.
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. This procedure could be used to study not only Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but also other neurodegenerative diseases.
Amy Comstock Rick, CEO of Parkinson’s Action Network, encourages investment by governments and non-government organizations (NGOs) because:
By investing in biomedical research both at the federal level and in the private sector, and creating results-driven public-private partnerships, the scientific community can develop more innovative therapies toward better treatments and, one day, a cure for Parkinson's.