Hospitals testing new imaging technique as cheaper alternative to PET for Alzheimer’s detection

Several East Coast hospitals are working together to test a new eye imaging technique that could detect Alzheimer’s disease two or more decades before symptoms start to arise.

It could also prove more accessible and far less costly than PET scans, which are the traditional method of spotting toxic proteins that interfere with the brain’s functions. Led by the University of Rhode Island, the $5 million Atlas of Retinal Imaging in Alzheimer’s Study could drastically reshape the diagnostic landscape for this brain disease.

“We believe this could significantly lower the cost of testing,” Peter Snyder, PhD, University of Rhode Island vice president for research and economic development, said in a statement. “We may then identify more people in the very earliest stage of the disease, and our drug therapies are likely to be more effective at that point and before decades of slow disease progression.”

The institution is also collaborating with Florida-based BayCare Health System and the Brown University-affiliated Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital on the clinical trial. Their goal is to eventually create a “gold standard” database of retina images to help identify reliable biomarkers of early Alzheimer’s, before the disease reaches a clinical stage.  

Radiologists typically do not conduct PET scans until after the disease’s symptoms begin to surface, when it may be too late for drug therapy. The team hopes that this new retina scan will be much more accessible and deliverable in eye doctors' offices across the country. 

Snyder noted that cells in the layers of the retina are the same types as those in the brain attacked by the disease. Thus, changes in this part of the eye reflect the same process occurring in the brain.

“We can look more easily in the retina to see the effects of disease on the way blood is carried to brain and retinal cells,” he noted. “We are also using a very new laser imaging technique that makes the chemical pigments in the retina fluoresce, and we think atypical changes in the amount of these chemicals might signal high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

The hospital partners soon plan to enroll 330 individuals ages 55 to 80 in the “landmark study,” ranging from healthy patients to those with mild Alzheimer’s. They’ll examine participants at four different periods over the next three years, with each encounter including memory assessments, the laser retinal imaging test, and other measurements of mood, walking and balance.

Funding comes by way of the Morton Plant Mease Health Care and St. Anthony’s Hospital foundations, according to the announcement.