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Simple eye exam could find Alzheimer's disease early

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders are often diagnosed after a disease has progressed. Using a special ophthalmoscope that detects fluorescent markers signaling early neurological disease is being explored by researchers that could allow clinicians to detect and track Alzheimer's disease with a simple eye exam.

Professors Francesca Cordeiro & Stephen Moss have identified a process that directly measures retinal (therefore brain cell) death in real time. According to Dr. Cordeiro, "Few people realize that the retina is a direct, albeit thin, extension of the brain.”

Cordeiro adds, “The death of nerve cells is the key event in all neurodegenerative disorders – but until now it has not been possible to study cell death in real time. This technique means we should be able to directly observe retinal nerve cell death in patients, which has a number of advantages in terms of effective diagnosis. This could be critically important since identification of the early stages could lead to successful reversal of the disease progression with treatment.”

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The study is the first to be observed in animal models, and could lead the way to new and earlier treatments for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. It also opens the door to research by allowing scientists a means to measure the effects of new treatments.

"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”, explains Dr. Cordeiro.

The equipment used by the scientists on animals is the same that would be used in humans. The researchers will begin studying humans later this year using the simple, non-invasive, and inexpensive eye exam that measures retinal cell death that could detect Alzheimer’s disease early.

Cell Death and Disease (2010) 1, e3; doi:10.1038/cddis.2009.3
Published online 14 January 2010