One Step Closer to a Retina Test That May Diagnose Alzheimer's

Jessica Gwinn
By Jessica GwinnNovember 22, 2013

Shakespeare is credited for having said ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul.’ But the eyes are the windows to a whole lot else, too. It turns out our aging eyes tell many tales: from visible cataracts to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, our eyes can reveal a lot. New information shows that we may even be able to detect Alzheimer’s through the eye.

What the Eye Can Show Us

As the recent 2013 US Neuroscience Conference  revealed, a simple eye test may indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s in patients. The retina test has been discussed before and it seems it is one step closer to a possibility. The retina, the light-sensitive ‘film’ at the back of the eye, is a direct extension of the brain. It is also the only part of the brain that is readily accessible.

In tests on mice, layers of the retina were up to 49% thinner in animals genetically-engineered to develop Alzheimer’s, compared with healthy creatures of the same age.

The disease is thought to kill cells in the eyes at the same time as it kills cells in the brain. This means it may be possible to spot dementia through an easy and inexpensive test at the eye doctor.

Alterations in the same retinal cells could also help detect glaucoma – which causes blindness – and is now also viewed as a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s, the researchers report.

Scott Turner, director of the memory disorders program at Georgetown University Medical Center said: “The retina is an extension of the brain so it makes sense to see if the same pathologic processes found in an Alzheimer’s brain are also found in the eye.”

Dr. Turner and colleagues looked at the thickness of the retina in an area that had not previously been investigated. This included the inner nuclear layer and the retinal ganglion cell layer.

What the Future May Hold

As we know, the cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown and there is currently no cure. It often goes undetected for years until so many cells die that symptoms become increasingly prevalent and impossible for patients to ignore.

Common thinking is that detecting the disease early is believed to be vital to prevent memory loss. Early detection may help patients to change their current behaviors, thinking and environment in order to help arrest symptoms.

Will this retina test one day help us know what’s happening inside our bodies before it’s too late? One can only hope.

But even if you could know you had Alzheimer’s based on a retinal test, would you still want to know? Is ignorance bliss if there’s nothing you can do to change your fate?

What You Can Do Now

Stay informed. And before you venture into a hypochondriac state of worry, rest assured: there’s no link between common eye diseases and dementia

Get annual checkups with your ophthalmologist. Read articles and keep up to date on the latest news. Stay healthy. If you notice changes in your eyesight, get checked. Your eyes may be the early key to detecting Alzheimer’s. Doing what you can, following a brain-healthy diet and staying informed are still some of the best measures you can take.

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Jessica Gwinn

Jessica Gwinn

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