Parkinson’s disease is an age-related, neurological disorder that affects several million people around the globe, including my own family.

One of the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease is the progressive loss of cells in a region deep in the brain, called the substantia nigra. These cells are a source of a special chemical, dopamine, which helps regulate mood, memory and motor movement, among other things.

Hence when these “dopaminergic” cells degenerate in Parkinson’s disease, individuals experience tremors, difficulties initiating and maintaining smooth movement and cognitive issues.

Unfortunately, there is still no treatment for this debilitating condition.

Despite decades of research, we are set back by the limitations of current research models and the fact that it’s impossible to obtain brain tissue from living patients to authentically study Parkinson’s disease.

So, how do researchers study this evasive disease? One not-so-intuitive answer: skin cells!

Physicians have long known that in addition to the movement-related symptoms, individuals with Parkinson’s disease experience sleep issues, constipation, fatigue, voice changes and pain, among other problems.

This suggests that Parkinson’s disease may be a systemic condition affecting cells more broadly, beyond the boundaries of the brain.

As a research assistant in Lalitha Madhavan’s lab, I use the unconventional model of skin cells to investigate a cellular process known as “autophagy” – a mechanism that has recently been implicated in Parkinson’s disease pathology. Autophagy helps break down materials when they are no longer needed or are toxic to the cell.

My research indicates that autophagy is dysfunctional in cells of people with Parkinson’s disease. We have also found the skin cells exhibit several other alterations, such as inefficient energy production, changes in cell structure, and an increased susceptibility to stress.

These features are relevant to cell death and, interestingly, they mirror processes normally seen in degenerating Parkinson’s disease brain cells.

There are still many pieces missing in the puzzle of Parkinson’s disease. Our efforts using this unique skin-cell model, alongside researchers around the world, are helping us get a step closer to the answer.

We hope that this model will not only allow us to better understand Parkinson’s disease and test potential therapeutics, but also act as a system that will support the development of biomarkers that could allow for early diagnosis of the disease.