SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The eyes are often called the “windows to the soul.” They may also help doctors spot the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine say the same amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of dementia patients also builds up in the retina of the eye.
Amyloid plaques are protein deposits that block and hinder the performance of brain cells. This disruption is one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Reversing and preventing this problem is one of the main focuses of dementia research, including the nationwide A4 study.
With scientists finding that these plaques also appear in the eye, the UC-San Diego team compared tests of retinal and brain amyloids in patients from the A4 study as well as the Longitudinal Evaluation of Amyloid Risk and Neurodegeneration study. The latter assesses the neurodegeneration risk of people with low levels of amyloid proteins.
The results reveal a link between the presence of retinal spots in the eyes and brain scans showing high levels of amyloid proteins. These findings also suggest that non-invasive retinal imaging may provide doctors with a new way of detecting the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
“This was a small initial dataset from the screening visit. It involved eight patients,” notes senior author Robert Rissman, PhD, a professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a university release.
“But these findings are encouraging because they suggest it may be possible to determine the onset, spread and morphology of AD — a preclinical diagnosis — using retinal imaging, rather than more difficult and costly brain scans.”
The findings appear in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.