Retina Health Could Be Key for Early Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Written by Dr. David Evans   Last modified on August 6, 2018

New studies indicate that regular scanning of retina health could play an important role in early detection of Alzheimer’s. Also called senile dementia, Alzheimer’s is a slow progressing condition that typically begins to surface in people 60+ without notice. It causes memory problems and affects thinking skills, eventually leading to a patient’s inability to carry out the simplest of tasks.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s has no cure and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. A number of drugs are available to help slow memory loss if treatment starts early enough in the disease process. But, when the disease progresses far enough, the available drugs to help support memory and cognitive processing lose their effectiveness.  Early detection is key to helping patients retain normal cognitive function for as long as possible.

The tried and true method for diagnosing Alzheimer’s relies on measuring amyloid beta plaque in the brain via an imaging test called positron emission tomography (PET). Unfortunately this test is extremely expensive (upwards of $7,000) and is rarely used due to the cost. Instead, doctors rely on bloodwork, MRI scanning, behavioral tests and family history. A cheap, noninvasive test for Alzheimer’s is sorely needed. That’s where retina health may come in…

A recent article in Eye World highlights the growing role that ophthalmologists can play in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease through retina imaging. The retina is the only place in the body where nerves and blood vessels can be directly seen and imaged. Dr. Maya Koronyo-Hamaoui is an assistant professor of neurosurgery and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who has been heavily involved in clinical research focused on retina health as an identifier for Alzheimer’s. She notes that “…the retina can be imaged at a particularly high resolution, [making it] an excellent biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease.”

A buildup of plaque and thinning of the retina nerve fiber layer can be indicative of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. Eye doctors can identify plaque buildup in the retina by using a contrast agent that reacts to specific wavelengths. Although your eye doctor may not be the one to actually confirm a diagnosis, he/she would be in a position to monitor retina markers during eye exams and refer at-risk patients to a cognitive specialist.

Most people over the age of 50 begin to experience vision deterioration that makes frequent checkups with eye care specialists more of a regular occurrence. So there is definitely a   synergistic aspect with these new findings given that many of those at risk are likely getting regular eye health screenings anyway. Dr. Koronyo-Hamaoui notes that although the research is ongoing, retina specialists can look for early signs of the disease “toward the far periphery of the retina.”

To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, check out these quick facts courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association: