Eye scans could detect Alzheimer's years before symptoms develop

Researchers have developed an experimental technology that provides a scientific basis for using noninvasive retinal imaging to diagnose Alzheimer's disease at an early stage, even before symptoms develop.
By Ed Mason | Aug 24, 2017
Researchers have developed an experimental technology that provides a scientific basis for using noninvasive retinal imaging to diagnose Alzheimer's disease at an early stage, even before symptoms develop.

The technology, developed by Cedars-Sinai and NeuroVision Imaging LLC, scans the retina the layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eyeball that sends nerve impulses from the optic nerve to the brain and detects beta-amyloid protein deposits mirroring those accumulating in the brains of people afflicted wth Alzheimer's.

The study is published online in the journal JCI Insight.

While accumulations of brain-damaging beta-amyloid protein deposits can be detected by analysis of cerebrospinal fluid and positron emission tomography, or PET scans, these procedures are invasive and expensive, making them impractical for routine screenings.

The new study reports on a clinical trial involving 16 patients. Its key findings included seeing a 4.7 fold increase in retinal plaques in patients with Alzheimer's, compared to a control group.

"This is the first study demonstrating the potential to image and quantify retinal findings related to beta-amyloid plaques noninvasively in living patients using a retinal scan with high resolution," said senior lead author Maya Koronyo-Hamaoui, Ph.D., in a statement, adding, "Findings from this study strongly suggest that retinal imaging can serve as a surrogate biomarker to investigate and monitor Alzheimer's disease."

Because the retina is connected to the central nervous system and shares many characteristics with the brain, it provides a unique way to diagnose and monitor Alzheimer's disease, according to co-author Keith L. Black, M.D.

"We know that Alzheimer's disease begins as many as 10 or 20 years before cognitive decline becomes evident, and we believe that potential treatments may be more effective if they can be started early in the process," Black said. "Therefore, screening and early detection may be crucial to our efforts to turn the tide against the growing threat of this devastating disease."

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