How a simple eye test can predict onset of disease

Alzheimer Disease

The imaging technique, known as optical coherence tomography angiography (Octa), allows doctors to see retinal blood vessels smaller than the width of a human hair.

"There is a strong effort in the research community to develop a less invasive test, such as a blood test that can yield information about Alzheimer's disease risk, " he said. Within less than a minute, OCTA takes a non-invasive picture of the retina - the nerve cells in the back of our eyes that convert light from the outside world into nerve signals that the brain interprets into images.

"It's possible these changes in blood vessel density in the retina may mirror what's going on in the tiny blood vessels in the brain".

The study also found differences in the retinas of those with Alzheimer's disease compared to healthy people and to those with mild cognitive impairment which is often a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

According to the research, these patients have less dense vessel webs in their retinas that could even be "sparse" in some areas.

She and her team found microscopic blood vessels formed in a dense web at the back of the eye, inside the retina, in 133 of the study's healthy participants.

But US scientists at the Duke Eye Centre in North Carolina wondered if changes might also be visible in the retina, which is an extension of the brain and so could offer a window into what is happening behind the skull.

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Dr Sharon Fekrat, from Duke University Medical Centre in the U.S., said: "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". In addition, a specific layer of the retina was thinner in those with Alzheimer's.

Dr. Fekrat believes that if more people in the earlier stages of Alzheimer's could be recruited into clinical trials, there is a bigger potential for better treatments to be discovered.

Now the only ways to definitively diagnose Alzheimer's are through expensive brain scans or by taking a fluid sample from the patient's spinal cord.

The study suggests that a loss of blood vessels in the retina could be an early warning sign of the degenerative mental condition.

Researchers say they plan to study people who have a genetic risk for Alzheimer's but don't have symptoms to see they may be able to predict the development of the disease.

Ophthalmologist and senior author Sharon Fekrat, M.D., Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke, along with lead author Dilraj Grewal, M.D., Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke, expect that their work may one day have a positive impact on patients' lives.

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