Is Olfactory Epithelium Biopsy Useful for Confirming Alzheimer's Disease?

Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 2019 Mar;128(3):184-192. doi: 10.1177/0003489418814865. Epub 2018 Dec 2.


Objectives: The clinical symptoms of Alzheimer's disease (AD) are preceded by a long asymptomatic period associated with "silent" deposition of aberrant paired helical filament (PHF)-tau and amyloid-beta proteins in brain tissue. Similar depositions have been reported within the olfactory epithelium (OE), a tissue that can be biopsied in vivo. The degree to which such biopsies are useful in identifying AD is controversial. This postmortem study had 3 main goals: first, to quantify the relative densities of AD-related proteins in 3 regions of the olfactory neuroepithelium, namely, the nasal septum, middle turbinate, and superior turbinate; second, to establish whether such densities are correlated among these epithelial regions as well as with semi-quantitative ratings of general brain cortex pathology; and third, to evaluate correlations between the protein densities and measures of antemortem cognitive function.

Methods: Postmortem blocks of olfactory mucosa were obtained from 12 AD cadavers and 24 controls and subjected to amyloid-beta and PHF-tau immunohistochemistry.

Results: We observed marked heterogeneity in the presence of the biomarkers of tau and amyloid-beta among the targeted olfactory epithelial regions. No significant difference was observed between the cadavers with AD and the controls regarding the concentration of these proteins in any of these epithelial regions. Only one correlation significant was evident, namely, that between the tau protein densities of the middle and the upper turbinate (r = .58, P = .002).

Conclusion: AD-related biomarker heterogeneity, which has not been previously demonstrated, makes comparisons across studies difficult and throws into question the usefulness of OE amyloid-beta and PHF-tau biopsies in detecting AD.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; aging; immunohistochemistry; olfaction; olfaction disorders; olfactory mucosa.

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnosis*
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / analysis*
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Biopsy*
  • Cadaver
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Microscopy
  • Nasal Septum
  • Olfactory Mucosa / pathology*
  • Turbinates
  • tau Proteins / analysis*


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Biomarkers
  • MAPT protein, human
  • tau Proteins