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Are Your Eyes the Key to Predicting Alzheimer's?

Jessica Gwinn
By Jessica GwinnOctober 12, 2016

A recent breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease suggests that beta amyloid protein in the retina of the eye corresponds directly to the same amount of protein in the brain.

Learn more about how your eyes could be the key to predicting Alzheimer’s.

Predicting Alzheimer’s

We don’t have a crystal ball that tells us our future. But when it comes to whether or not we’re going to develop Alzheimer’s, there is a new test that just might give us a serious glimpse into our fate.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles discovered that beta amyloid protein, a dementia-causing protein in the brain, can also be found in the retina of the eye; giving the medical community a much simpler way to predict the disease.

This is great news, considering Alzheimer’s disease is expected to rise from 5.1 million in 2010 to 13.5 million in 2050 and is the only cause of death among the top 10 in the U.S. that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Since Alzheimer’s disease begins its destructive path in the brain 10-20 years before there are any symptoms — and by the time symptoms do show, brain cells have been destroyed by as much as 40-50% — this research helps with not only early diagnosis, but also Alzheimer’s clinical trials and prevention efforts. But, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Would You Want to Know Your Future Even if You Couldn’t Change it?

Last year, the FDA approved an Alzheimer’s brain amyloid imaging PET scan that “could potentially be helpful in the diagnosis of people with cognitive impairment when considered along with other clinical information, and when performed according to standardized protocols by trained staff.”

But the scan is both invasive and not entirely definitive. Furthermore, it can be hard to say who the ideal candidate would be for such a procedure.

Perhaps the biggest risk factor is psychological, though. While candidates might be able to see into their future, Alzheimer’s has no known cure. Living with this knowledge could have negative consequences on a person’s psyche.

What’s in the Eyes of the Beholder

Now there’s something newer and simpler to find the disease. A retinal test that can detect these same brain amyloid plaques, a known marker for the disease. Some neurologists suspect the test can indicate markers 10 years out while others say it’s as much as 20 years ahead.

According to Primary Care Optometry News, “Neurologists have theorized a correlation between the amount of amyloid in the eye and amyloid in the brain. If correct, the retina could be the solution to early detection and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), as amyloid beta protein accumulation may begin approximately 20 years prior to memory loss symptoms.”

So let’s say you — or your loved one — decides to get this test. What then?

“Most people, if they’re going to get AD, start developing the pathology hallmarks, such as amyloid deposits, in their 50s,” Keith L. Black, MD, chairman and professor of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and cofounder of NeuroVision, said. “The key for having an effective treatment for AD is early detection. You want to prevent those brain cells from being killed or dying in the first place.”

If you knew that in 10-20 years you’d develop Alzheimer’s disease, what would you do with that time? How would that affect your daily life? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Jessica Gwinn

Jessica Gwinn

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