Update on Alzheimer's Detection and the Eye

2:40 PM

Back in July, I wrote about the potential use of retinal photography in the early detection of Alzheimer's Disease in this post.  At that time, research had just been published showing a correlation between narrowed arteriole lumens (which can only be seen by a doctor during a retinal exam without cutting into the body!) and individuals with Alzheimer's.  Utilizing retinal photography in this way is still in its infancy, but new studies are emerging all the time supporting comprehensive eye exams as a potential source of early detection.

Brain tissue imaging depicting anomalous amyloid proteins


In a study by Susan Stark at the University of Washington, 125 individuals of "normal cognition" with an average age of 75 were asked to record the number of falls they suffered over a period of 6 months.  Brain scans were performed on all study participants looking for amyloid beta plaques (a calling card of Alzheimer's brain damage), and it was found that the risk of falling was 3 times greater for every unit of amyloid plaques found!  What does this have to do with eye exams? While we aren't the only doctors that treat people after a fall, we do see patients on a regular basis with injuries around their eyes from falls.  Additionally, patients discuss with their eye doctors at their annual exams if they are having dizziness or falling because they often attribute this imbalance to a problem with their glasses.  People suffering or complaining of frequent falls traditionally are referred to their primary care doctor to be screened for blood pressure issues, but these new study results support screening for signs of dementia as well!

As I mentioned earlier in this post, one of the most important aspects of your eye exam is screening the health of the retina.  It is so important because it is the only place we can look at blood vessels and nervous tissue without invasive procedures!  Ongoing research by Dr. Lee Goldstein at Boston University and the company Neuroptix is trying to utilize our easy access to the eye by developing a laser scanner to detect amyloid proteins in the eyes.  According to Dr. Goldstein, the presence of amyloid proteins (which form the brain plaques) can be measured in the lens of the eye (the structure where cataracts form, which is also entirely comprised of proteins).

Retinal Photography gives a high-definition view of the optic nerve (center) as well as the retinal arterioles and venules which aids in detection of hypertension, diabetes, and potentially even Alzheimer's!


Early detection of amyloid plaques and misfolded tau proteins has captured the medical community, and new research is being published almost daily.  Most recently, we are learning that these anomalous tau proteins are found even in young people that are suffering traumatic brain injuries, such as football players.  Most recently investigators found the proteins in the brain of an 18 year old football athlete who had suffered multiple concussions.
Anomalous proteins in the brain of an 18 year old football player; image courtesy link above

We are only beginning to understand this disease, and there is a lot of research yet to come before detection of Alzheimer's in its earliest stages is possible.  What we do know is that routine health care, including eye exams, is our best option for catching health issues in their earliest stages.  So even if you don't need glasses, remember it is really worth your time to have a comprehensive examination!



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