Research Update: Retinal Imaging Can Detect Early Alzheimer's

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Getting lost while gazing into someone's eyes might be romantic, but according to recent research, there may be a new benefit of looking into eyes... diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. While clearly not as heartwarming or exciting, examining the eyes may serve to be a very efficient and effective way to determine if someone is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

The Research

Two recent studies have demonstrated the possibility of detecting beta-amyloid protein in the eyes, and found that its presence there helped the researchers correctly identify which participants had Alzheimer's disease and which did not.

The detection of beta-amyloid in the eyes also correlated with its presence in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Here's a summary of the two studies:

  • In the first study, curcumin (found in the bright yellow spice turmeric) was given to participants to consume and then their eyes were examined. Curcumin attaches itself to beta-amyloid proteins and "stains" them, thus making the proteins more visible with examination. Researchers then used an optical imaging device designed at Cedars-Sinai to view the retina closely. They found that they could detect the beta-amyloid proteins in the eye and that its presence closely correlated with the presence of beta-amyloid protein in the brain as determined by PET scans. They also determined that the amount of beta-amyloid protein increased over a period of three months, perhaps opening the door for use of this method not only to detect and diagnoses Alzheimer's, but also to monitor the effectiveness of certain treatments by noting if the amount of the proteins are decreasing.

    (Interestingly, some research has found that curcumin is correlated with a lower risk of developing dementia.)

    • In the second study, an ointment was applied to the inner eye lid of participants and the eye was closely examined through a newly developed fluorescent ligand eye scanning (FLES) system. Similar to the first study, the ointment attaches to beta-amyloid proteins and the scanning system enables the researcher to actually see the proteins if they are present in the eye. PET scanning was used to compare the presence of beta-amyloid in the brain to that in the eyes. The study concluded that this method was able to accurately identify participants with and without Alzheimer's disease, and again, that the levels of beta-amyloid in the eyes correlated with those in the brain.

      The Benefits

      Potentially, this method of detecting beta-amyloid protein could allow for earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. Currently, Alzheimer's disease is difficult to detect until its effects and symptoms are significant, Late diagnosis is problematic since the treatments currently available are only able to possibly slow the progression of symptoms or perhaps maintain current functioning for a limited time- rather than reverse its effects.

      (See: 12 Benefits of Early Detection of Alzheimer's Disease)

      Other potential benefits include that this method of diagnosis would likely be significantly less costly than PET scans and less invasive than a lumbar puncture, both of which can often detect beta-amyloid protein.

      Additionally, these preliminary studies did not demonstrate any serious side effects from the eye imaging procedure.

      As with other preliminary research studies, these findings need to be researched further and replicated, but they do appear to be a promising development in our ability to evaluate and diagnose Alzheimer's disease.


      Alzheimer's Association. Alzheimer's Association International Conference. July 13, 2014. Smell and eye tests show potential to detect Alzheimer's disease early.

      Cedars-Sinai. July 13, 2014. Study of Noninvasive Retinal Imaging Device Presented at Alzheimer's Conference.

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