A window into your brain: Can your eyes predict Alzheimer’s?

Reporter: Amy Oshier
Detecting Alzheimer’s disease. (Credit: Ivanhoe Newswire)

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, the earlier the diagnosis the better and soon, maybe your eye doctor will be able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier than ever before.

Today, more than six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to 12.7 million.

Early diagnosis is key to slowing the progression of this memory-stealing, brain-changing disease. Soon, a regular eye exam may reveal if you’re at risk.

Ninety-five-year-old Sam Namer started losing his memory eight years ago. For decades, researchers have known beta amyloid plaques in the brain play a significant role in Alzheimer’s.

“For some reason, in Alzheimer’s disease, it aggregates in your brain in a very big way,” says Robert Rissman, PhD, professor of neurosciences at UCSD School of Medicine.

Now, a team of researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine believe beta amyloid plaques, not in the brain, but in the retina may be key to an even earlier diagnosis.

Rissman adds, “It’s thought that people have amyloid plaques, or accumulations in their brain of beta amyloid, probably 10 to 20 years before they see any real symptoms. So, the question here is, ‘Is amyloid in the retina at the same time, or before that?’”

In a small study, Rissman found that the presence of retinal spots in the eyes correlated with brain scans showing higher levels of cerebral amyloid. This could be one of the first signs of the disease and these ‘spots’ can be detected during a normal eye exam.

“The goal would be for optometrists and ophthalmologists to be able to be the first line people to screen for Alzheimer’s disease in their yearly meet-ups with their patients,” Rissman emphasizes.

Which is important because the earlier the diagnosis, the earlier you can be prepared.

The retinal imaging would significantly cut down on costly MRI and PET scans. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, treating Alzheimer’s and dementia cost $355 billion last year. By 2050, these costs could rise to one point one trillion.

The next step, researchers are planning a larger study of people at the asymptomatic stage.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer.

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