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Eye exam detects signs of Alzheimer's disease

14 March 2019

While the test is still in the early phases of research, it could potentially help improve the selection of individuals for drug trials: "individuals with mild cognitive impairment who were predicted to have an abnormal concentration of amyloid in their spinal fluid were found to be 2.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease", Ben Goudey, staff researcher, genomics research team, IBM research, wrote in a blog post. It enables physicians to see the smallest blood vessels in the back of the eye that are smaller than the width of a human hair.

In addition to the 200 participants, researchers studied 133 healthy control subjects; 39 with Alzheimer's disease, and 37 with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The blood vessel changes may be the result of changes in the brain that signify Alzheimer's disease.

The test involved a machine that performed optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA), a non-invasive procedure that only takes a few minutes.

They stressed that while they have proved that blood vessels become sparser in those with Alzheimer's, the next step is to show this happens before memory problems appear, which would give doctors a way to diagnose the condition years in advance.

IBM claims that they used machine learning to identify a set of specific proteins in the blood which can predict the concentration of amyloid-beta in spinal fluid.

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It would also give patients time to plan for the future with their families - while they still have their faculties, said the United States team. But the findings by Duke researchers could mean there may soon be an easier - and more cost-effective - way to detect and diagnose Alzheimer's.

"It's possible that these changes in blood vessel density in the retina could mirror what's going on in the tiny blood vessels in the brain, perhaps before we are able to detect any changes in cognition", Sharon Fekrat, MD, the study's senior author, said in a Duke Health news release. But such techniques to study the brain are invasive and costly.

The researchers said that loss of blood vessels in retina would reflect changes in the brain, be it for both healthy people or Alzheimer's patients.

"But future studies need to focus on earlier stages of the disease", Isaacson said in an email.

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia affect 850,000 people in the United Kingdom - a figure set to rise to 2 million by 2050 because of the ageing population.

Eye exam detects signs of Alzheimer's disease