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Could eye imaging help detect Alzheimer’s earlier?

A new study suggests eye care professionals could play a significant role in early detection of Alzheimer’s disease in the future. But experts caution that more research—especially studies that include larger patient samples—is needed.

“This research is promising, but definitely needs further review and additional patient studies.”

The research is planned for presentation at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark, on July 15, 2014. The summary released before the presentation indicates that a noninvasive optical imaging device (rather than the normal PET scan) may be able to detect changes that occur in the retina and brain and signify signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

One traditional sign is the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain. Current tests detect these changes only after the disease has advanced to late stages.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center—where the optical imaging device was developed—discovered this plaque also occurs in the retina. When researchers “stain” the plaque with curcumin, a component of the spice turmeric, they could detect the plaque in the retina before it developed in the brain. The new imaging device allows eye doctors to examine the eye and see those changes.

According to the study claims, the optical imaging exam appears to detect changes that occur 15 to 20 years before clinical diagnosis.

Further research needed to determine success
The optical imaging research is being conducted as part of the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle Flagship Study of Ageing (AIBL), which has a research cohort of more than 1,300 subjects. However, the preliminary study results cite only 40 patients. Although the research is encouraging and has garnered a great deal of media attention, experts encourage caution for now.

Beth Kneib, O.D., director of the AOA Clinical Resources Group, states, “This research is promising, but definitely needs further review and additional patient studies and formal scientific publishing.”

American Optometric Association, July 2014