Close up of elderly man's eye

Examining eye structure may help detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease

Optometrists could gather important diagnostic and treatment information regarding Alzheimer's disease.

According to new research, searching for variations in eye structure may help detect early-stage Alzheimer's disease. In the future, optometrists may have a role to play in early diagnosis.

Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute examined both animal models and postmortem human retinas from donors with Alzheimer's disease. Using high-resolution, microscopic imaging and visual acuity measurements, they were able to monitor tissue degeneration and decline in visual function. Both are strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers found abnormalities, including changes in the retinal pigment epithelial layer, which harbors supportive cells located in the back of the eye, and in the thickness of the choroidal layer, which has blood vessels that provide nutrients to the retina.

The greater the abnormality, the greater the chance of the patient having Alzheimer's disease, noted study co-author Alexander Ljubimov, Ph.D.

ODs help identify chronic illnesses

Optometrists already play a critical role—through routine eye examinations—in identifying chronic illnesses in their patients, including diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Alzheimer's disease could one day be added to the list.

Currently, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, making it the 6th-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Lori Grover, O.D., Ph.D., the American Public Health Association's Vision Care Section (VCS) Council member, believes the new study presents the potential promise that, in the future, optometrists could gather important diagnostic and treatment information regarding Alzheimer's disease. Best of all, it could be done in a noninvasive fashion.

"Although it will take more research and time to find out if this promise is realized, it is exciting to think of the possibility of helping our patients with or at risk of Alzheimer's and their health care teams and their families earlier in the course of the disease," Dr. Grover says.

Alzheimer's can't be prevented or cured. However, early detection helps optimize medical treatment and allows patients to plan and make decisions for the future.

April 4, 2014

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