Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences

Dr Mark Head

Dr Mark Head is a Reader, and Deputy Director of the National CJD Research and Surveillance Unit.

Dr Mark Head


  • Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences
  • Deputy Director, National CJD Research and Surveillance Unit

Contact details


  • Molecular and cellular biologist
  • Honours degree in Genetics from the University of Edinburgh
  • PhD in cell differentiation, transdifferentiation and crystallin gene expression in the eye (University of Edinburgh)
  • Post-doctoral study of growth factors in the eye at INSERM U118 (Paris, France)
  • Post-doctoral studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University (NYC, USA) on Alexander’s disease, astrocytes and stress protein expression and function
  • Established a biochemistry, molecular and cell biology laboratory at the, National CJD Research & Surveillance Unit (University of Edinburgh).
  • Current roles in Unit management, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease diagnosis, and basic and applied prion disease research.

Research summary

I am interested in proteins in the brain and the eye, and how these proteins come to be involved in diseases. Protein misfolding is a common feature of diverse diseases, including lens crystallin proteins leading to cataract, glial filament proteins in brain cells called astrocytes in Alexander’s disease and the prion protein in the fatal and transmissible neurological condition Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. My current work involves studying the human prions that cause CJD in the tissues of patients who have died from the disease and establishing molecular and cellular models as alternatives to animal experimentation.

cells stained for prion protein
Uptake of brain proteins (abnormal prion protein stained green, glial fibrillary acidic protein stained red, nucleus blue) by cultured human cells (image courtesy of Dr Zuzana Krejciova) .

Research aims and areas of interest

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare fatal neurological condition and the prototypic human prion disease. Prions replicate and spread within the brain resulting in neurodegeneration, but prions can also be transmitted between people and between animals and people. They exhibit strains-like properties and yet prions appear to be composed solely of a misfolded form of the prion protein. In this sense they comprise a novel class of epigenetic infectious pathogens. My research uses human tissue-based approaches and cell and cell-free model systems to:

  • Determine whether definable molecular strains underlie the clinico-pathological heterogeneity of human prion diseases
  • Define the cellular risk factors for susceptibility to human prion infection
  • Develop sensitive and discriminatory tests for human prions
  • Determine the risks to human health associated with emergent animal prion diseases
  • Investigate the effects of molecular chaperones on the process of pathological protein misfolding

Research group members

  • Alexander Peden – Post-doctoral research fellow
  • Marcelo Barria – Post-doctoral research fellow
  • James Alibhai - Post-doctoral research fellow
  • Helen Yull – Research technical officer
  • Adriana Libori - Research technician

  • Emma Hardacre - Professional training year student


  • James Ironside – National CJD Research & Surveillance Unit, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, The University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • Siddharthan Chandran – Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, The University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • Paul de Sousa – Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • Jean Manson – The Roslin Institute, The University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • Marc Turner and Michael Jones – Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (UK)
  • Suzette Priola – National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (USA)
  • Tetsuyuki Kitamoto – Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine (Japan)
  • Masanori Morita – Japan Blood Products Organisation (Japan)
  • Olivier Andreoletti, Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, Toulouse (France)

  • Zuzana Krejciova & Stanley Prusiner, Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases, UCSF (USA)

Sources of funding

  • The Department of Health Policy Programme
  • The Scottish Government
  • National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research