A simple and cheap eye test could “transform” the detection and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it was claimed today.
New research described as “very exciting” by a leading charity opens up the possibility of tracking degenerative brain diseases by looking into a patient’s eyes.
The test uses fluorescent markers that attach themselves to cells in the retina, the light-sensitive region at the back of the eye.
Observing the death of retinal cells provides an indication of cell death in the brain, say scientists.
A study reported today in the journal Cell Death & Disease showed how the technique could be used to identify Alzheimer’s in mice.
The results pave the way for high street opticians to test the brain health of patients as well as their eyesight, the researchers believe.
Alzheimer’s is known to affect eyesight, and 60% of sufferers have impaired vision.
Typical problems affect the perception of motion, depth, colour and contrast, adding to the confusion that commonly accompanies the disease.
The new research builds on the discovery that neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s result in the death of retinal cells.
Scientists at University College London found that the eye literally provides a “window” into the brain — making it possible to spot the early onset of Alzheimer’s by watching cells die off in the retina.
The technique was demonstrated in mice genetically engineered to develop a brain disease identical to Alzheimer’s in humans.
A similar process can detect and assess the blinding disease glaucoma, which also leads to the death of retinal cells. The first trials involving glaucoma patients are planned for later this year.
Professor Francesca Cordeiro, one of the UCL scientists who led the research, said: “Currently, the biggest obstacle to research into new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases is the lack of a technique where the brain’s response to new treatments can be directly assessed — this technique could potentially help overcome that.
“The equipment used for this research was customised to suit animal models but is essentially the same as is used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. It is also inexpensive and non-invasive, which makes us fairly confident that we can progress quickly to its use in patients.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which affects around 700,000 people in the UK.