By tracking abnormalities in the eye, scientists may have found a new way to detect early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Shaomei Wang, an associate professor in the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute and the lead author of the study, said that it is very challenging to detect changes in the brain that would indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. But, if the findings from his study can be further verified and it is possible to use the eye in early detection, people can be directed toward medical help sooner rather than later.
Dr. Wang and his team of investigators used high-resolution images of the eye, coupled with perception tests, in order to identify early signs of the disease.
The research was conducted on mice, as well as retinas from people with Alzheimer’s disease, which were donated after their death. In both cases, the eyes were imaged using high-resolution techniques, in order to track changes in the epithelial layer of the eye, and in the layer of the eye that has the blood vessels that bring nutrients to the retina.
There was a strong association between deterioration in these layers, as well as decline in visual perception, and Alzheimer’s disease. According to Alexander Ljubimov, one of the co-authors of the study – the larger the deterioration in these areas, the larger the chance that it was related to the disease.
As rates of Alzheimer’s disease have grown in the general population over the past several decades, more research has been directed toward finding a test that would indicate the early onset of the disease. Currently, it is estimated that there are over 5 million people in the United States who suffer from the disease and a total of 26 million people world-wide. Of the number in the United States (5 million), the vast majority are over the age of 65. In a little over 10 years time, by 2025, the number of people 65 years and older who suffer from the disease, is expected to climb to over 7 million. In addition there are people under 65 years old, approximately 200,000, who have what his called “younger-onset” Alzheimer’s.
Currently, there is no known cure for the disease and is estimated that, this year alone in the United States, costs related to the disease will be $203 billion. If the rate of Alzheimer’s continues to rise, that number could reach $1.2 trillion by 2050.
Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia – the gradual loss of memory and decline in cognitive function, which can make day-to-day living difficult. It is hoped that a reliable form of early detection will allow doctors to better study the disease, which would lead to people getting help more quickly and ultimately to finding a cure.
According to Clive Svendsen, who is one of the study’s co-authors, because the eyes of mice show similar responses to the disease as human eyes, the results are encouraging for finding a way to detect Alzheimer’s disease early. But, of course, more studies of human eyes are needed.
By Dan Reyes