Look through the eyes to spot Alzheimer’s: Fewer blood vessels behind the eyeball may be an early sign of the memory-robbing disease, scientists say

  • A lower amount of capillaries can be seen in imaging of the back of the eye
  • Scientists said this indicates inflammation in the brain
  • They hope it will one day be used to spot the early signs of the disease

Scientists could count blood vessels in people’s eyes to detect early signs of the memory-robbing disease, Alzheimer’s.

A study found that people with early signs of cognitive decline had a noticeably smaller number of capillaries in the back of their eyes than healthy people.

The finding adds to past evidence which suggests the changes in the tiny blood vessels may be a window to changes in the brain.

Research in this field is still in its infancy, but scientists said an eye test could one day be used to spot Alzheimer’s in its early stages.

Scientists could use blood vessels in the eyes to detect the memory robbing disease Alzheimer's as a study reveals lower amounts may indicate the early stages

Scientists could use blood vessels in the eyes to detect the memory robbing disease Alzheimer’s as a study reveals lower amounts may indicate the early stages

Northwestern University in Chicago recruited 32 participants who went through brain testing to see how good their memory was.

Those with cognitive decline were matched with people of the same age, gender and race whose cognitive (brain) health was good.

HOW TO DETECT ALZHEIMER’S

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, thinking skills and the ability to perform simple tasks.

It is the cause of 60 percent to 70 percent of cases of dementia.

The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are age 65 and older.

More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s.

It is unknown what causes Alzheimer’s. Those who have the APOE gene are more likely to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s.

 Signs and symptoms:

  • Difficulty remembering newly learned information
  • Disorientation
  • Mood and behavioral changes
  • Suspicion about family, friends and professional caregivers
  • More serious memory loss
  • Difficulty with speaking, swallowing and walking

Stages of Alzheimer’s:

  • Mild Alzheimer’s (early-stage) – A person may be able to function independently but is having memory lapses
  • Moderate Alzheimer’s (middle-stage) – Typically the longest stage, the person may confuse words, get frustrated or angry, or have sudden behavioral changes
  • Severe Alzheimer’s disease (late-stage) – In the final stage, individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, carry on a conversation and, eventually, control movement

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, but experts suggest physical exercise, social interaction and adding brain boosting omega-3 fats to your diet to prevent or slowdown the onset of symptoms.

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All individuals had eye imaging, and those who had cognitive impairment had fewer capillaries in their retina than those who did not.

The team, led by Dr Sandra Weintraub, published their findings in PLoS One. 

The back of the eye can be seen with new technology called OCT angiography that can show capillary changes in great detail.

It is able to reflect what is going on in the brain, as inflammation damages the small blood vessels, Dr Weintraub told Quartz.

Senior author Professor Amani Fawzi said: ‘Once our results are validated, this approach could potentially provide an additional type of biomarker to identify individuals at high risk of progressing to Alzheimer’s.

‘These individuals can then be followed more closely and could be prime candidates for new therapies aimed at slowing down the progression of the disease or preventing the onset of the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s.’

Therapies for Alzheimer’s are more effective if they are started before extensive brain damage and cognitive decline has started, Fawzi added.

It’s known that patients with Alzheimer’s have decreased retinal blood flow and vessel density.

But only recently have studies shown that these changes are also present in individuals with early Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment who have a higher risk for progressing to dementia. 

A slightly larger study by Duke Eye Centre in Durham, North Carolina, compared the retinas of 200 people with either Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and healthy people with normally functioning brains. 

Alzheimer’s patients had fewer blood vessels and reduced blood flow compared with both healthy controls and people with mild cognitive impairment. 

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A specific layer of their retina – sensitive tissue at the back of the eye – was also thinner. 

But in this study, published in Ophthalmology Retina, there was no difference in blood vessels between MCI and healthy controls.

It wasn’t clear if the retinal changes or the onset of Alzheimer’s came first. 

However, lead author Professor Sharon Fekra, said: ‘If we can detect these blood vessel changes in the retina before any changes in cognition, that would be a game changer.’ 

WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink. 

More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death.

WHAT HAPPENS?

As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. 

That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason. 

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual. 

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.

EARLY SYMPTOMS:

  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call 

LATER SYMPTOMS:

  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior 
  • Eventually lose ability to walk
  • May have problems eating 
  • The majority will eventually need 24-hour care   
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 Source: Alzheimer’s Association



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