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University of Exeter Medical School

Professor Nigel Cairns

Professor Nigel Cairns

Professor of Neuropathology


 01392 727603

 Living Systems Institute T05.15


Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD


Professor Cairns joined the College of Medicine and Health and the Living Systems Institute in 2019.  For more than two decades he has focused on the neuropathology and pathogenesis of neurological diseases including Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases and a group of disorders called the frontotemporal diseases. He has focused on characterizing the misfolded proteins within inclusion bodies of these diseases. One of these proteins, a DNA-binding protein, called TDP-43 becomes abnormal in most patients with frontotemporal disease and/or motor neuron disease (MND). His lab was the first to discover a defect in the TDP-43 gene, a novel cause of MND. This discovery led to the development of a diagnostic test which is in use in the clinic today. Subsequently, he has investigated small molecules that bind to abnormal TDP-43; firstly, as potential imaging agents and secondly as drugs that may slow down or stop the build-up of misfolded proteins within neurons. At Exeter he plans to validate the usefulness of TDP-43-modulating drugs in cell and animal models and, hopefully, progress these exciting new molecules to clinical trials.    


  • BA
  • BSc
  • PhD
  • FRCPath


  • University of Exeter


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Research interests

Professor Cairns has a background in experimental neuropathology and his research career has focused principally on the neuropathology and pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease and the frontotemporal diseases. Within the University of Exeter Medical School, he leads a team studying the misfolding of proteins that accumulate as inclusion bodies within neurons and glia of several neurodegenerative diseases with the aim of understanding how protein misfolding may lead to loss of function, cell death and clinical disease. His team's research specialisms include the monitoring and assessment of protein misfolding, cell function and viability using cryo-electron microscopy in collaboration with Drs Vicki Gold and Bertram Daum and in vitro approaches including the monitoring and manipulation of misfolded proteins using non-cell- and cell-based assays in collaboration with Professor Noel Morgan.

Research projects

Current Projects:

  • Atomic characterization of misfolded proteins in Lewy body and related diseases.
  • Modelling and modulating the misfolding of proteins in neurodegenerative disease.

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External Engagement and Impact


  • Moore Award, Association of American Neuropathologists.

  • Fellow, Royal College of Pathologists of the United Kingdom.

  • Top 100 Investigators in Alzheimer’s Disease Research. J. Alzheimer’s Disease 2009; 16: 451–465.

  • Dorismae and Harvey Friedman Research on Aging Award.

  • Highly cited researcher in top 1% of papers in neuroscience and behaviour. Web of Science 2020.

Committee/panel activities

  • NIH Neurobiobank Brain and Tissue Repository 2019, Review Panel. National Institutes of Health, USA.

  • Alzheimer's Disease and Its Related Dementias 2019, Review Panel. National Institutes of Health.

Editorial responsibilities

  • Brain Pathology

Invited lectures

  • Neuropathologic heterogeneity in autosomal dominant and late-onset Alzheimer disease. Nineteenth International Congress of Neuropathology, Tokyo, Japan.
  • The first NINDS/NBIB consensus meeting to define neuropathologic criteria for the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Nineteenth International Congress of Neuropathology, Tokyo, Japan.

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