How a simple eye test can predict onset of disease

Maricruz Casares
Marcha 13, 2019

What was previously an unpleasant, drawn-out process could now be completed in a quick, routine eye exam.

According to a group of researchers at Duke University Medical Center, a loss of blood vessels in the retina could identify the difference between a cognitively healthy adult and one with signs of a neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer's.

"We're measuring blood vessels that can't be seen during a regular eye exam and we're doing that with relatively new noninvasive technology that takes high-resolution images of very small blood vessels within the retina in just a few minutes", she said.

Their study of 200 people, published in the journal Ophthalmology Retina, showed that those with Alzheimer's had a less dense coating of blood vessels at the back of the eye, with gaps appearing in places.

With almost 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease and no viable treatments or noninvasive tools for early diagnosis, its burden on families and the economy is heavy.

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A new kind of precise and non-invasive imaging called optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA) has assisted much of the recent research on the eye's connection with Alzheimer's. It is possible these changes in retina blood vessel density are mirroring what is happening with brain blood vessels. OCTA machines use light waves that reveal blood flow in every layer of the retina. Changes in blood vessels density in the retina may indicate similar activity within the brain which occurs with the disease; these changes may even occur before symptoms become noticeable which is why this eye scan could be groundbreaking. Such techniques to study the brain are invasive and costly.

Fekrat said, "Ultimately, the goal would be to use this technology to detect Alzheimer's early, before symptoms of memory loss are evident, and be able to monitor these changes over time in participants of clinical trials studying new Alzheimer's treatments".

In addition to Fekrat and Grewal, study authors include Stephen P. Yoon, Atalie C. Thompson, Bryce W. Polascik, Cynthia Dunn and James R. Burke.

Simple eye tests could be used to spot Alzheimer's disease years before patients begin to lose their memory, a study suggests.

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