Alzheimer's disease is growing at a rapid rate with nearly 6 million people living with the disease in the United States. A new effort is underway to spot the disease earlier, simply by looking in the eyes.
A special scan, images of blood flow to the eye, and a finding that may help halt Alzheimer's disease.
WGN’s Dina Bair volunteered her eyes for an explanation of how the process works.
“What we look for is the change in the capillaries,” Northwestern Medicine ophthalmologist Dr. Amani Fawzi said. “So, (looking at) the tiniest capillaries in the back of the eye, and what we found is that people who are cognitively impaired just around the center of the eye right here these small capillaries were slightly smaller but in a statistically significant way.”
The patients have to be matched by age, sex and race. One a healthy control and one previously found to have cognitive impairment are compared. Their eyes are scanned using optical coherence tomography angiography. Simply speaking, a minute-long test where two pictures are taken every three milliseconds.
“If there’s any change, any movement between those three milliseconds, that’s considered something that’s moving,” Fawzi said. “So, whatever’s moving shows up. Whatever is not moving shows up here. The difference between them is blood flow and structure.”
The difference cannot be seen by the naked eye. But computer calculations consistently showed those with diagnosed memory issues had less blood flow in the eyes, perhaps due to inflammation caused by plaque buildup in the brain. It's what doctors typically look for to identify Alzheimer's disease.
“Biomarkers in the brain, biomarkers in the spinal fluid are being used but we hope that this test can be part of that algorithm,” Fawzi said. “Another piece of evidence to support the diagnosis and help people be put to the right path and treatment.”
While there is no real treatment for Alzheimer's, Sandra Weintraub, a neuropsychologist with Northwestern's Alzheimer's disease and Cognitive Neurology Center has studied Alzheimer's and dementia for decades. She says if this test works as it appears to, it will help!
“If we had some way of early identification, we would be way ahead of the game and could try to institute interventions that could prevent the abnormal proteins from accumulating and causing the cognitive decline. There are things that you can do in your lifestyle to help maintain brain health, like exercise and eating well, sleeping, not drinking too much alcohol. So, you may adopt lifestyle changes that could push your risk.”
And patients could plan their future before memory problems interfere. Bottom line, this latest research could delay the disease even in people whose eyes reveal the signs.
“I am very excited about the potential for preventing Alzheimer’s as opposed to treating or curing it,” Weintraub said.
Northwestern is also currently studying a medication to reduce amyloid buildup in the brain.
More information here or by phone at 312-908-9339.