More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and associated death rates are on the rise. To help detect the disease in its early stages, scientists are researching how an eye test could uncover the telltale signs of amyloid plaque buildup.
Studying the Retina
Several recent studies on the retina of mice and humans show promising results for detecting changes associated with early Alzheimer’s disease. One study conducted by the University of Minnesota Center for Drug Design took color images of mouse retinas, looking for abnormalities in light reflection. Researchers discovered noticeable changes in amyloid aggregation over a period of six months, indicating potential development of Alzheimer’s.
A similar study was done at the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute. Lead author Shaomei Wang, M.D., Ph.D., stated, “By using the eye as a window to brain activity and function, we may be able to diagnose patients sooner and give them more time to prepare for the future.” Since retinal tissue is similar to brain tissue, looking for amyloid buildup in the eyes may be a promising way to catch Alzheimer’s before symptoms become severe.
What Eye Test Studies Mean for Humans
Can the results of the rodent studies be applied to people? A group of New England researchers used a combination of optical coherence tomography (OCT), PET scans and blue laser autofluorescence to compare the brains and eyes of 63 human participants at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The results showed similar levels of beta-amyloid in both the PET and retinal scans.
Study leader Claudia Santos, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, said that OCT could be used to alert doctors that a more comprehensive PET scan should be done to look for a buildup of amyloid compounds. If the combination of scans proves to be useful, early intervention methods could be employed to improve the quality of life of those at risk for an otherwise debilitating disease.
Treating Early Alzheimer’s
Although there isn’t yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, finding the signs early on gives patients and doctors the chance to implement positive diet and lifestyle changes in conjunction with medical interventions to slow progression and manage symptoms. By catching the disease in its early stages, these steps could shorten the time patients spend battling dementia and improve how they experience their later years.
For families, the eye tests could mean more time to enjoy the company of loved ones and less of the distress associated with caring for a spouse or parent struggling with Alzheimer’s symptoms. In the future, more sophisticated eye scans could be used to help high-risk individuals plan for care.
With Alzheimer’s cases in Americans over 65 expected to reach 14 million by 2050, detecting early Alzheimers is key in managing the associated decline in mental function. If you have a family history of the disease, talk with your doctor about the possibility of getting an eye test to look for initial signs.
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