Retina imaging could provide early Alzheimer’s detection, potentially adding years of productivity to patients’ lives

An affordable, noninvasive method of imaging patients’ eyes may help detect Alzheimer’s disease sooner, allowing clinicians to provide treatment early in the disease process, before it worsens.

That’s according to new research out of the University of Minnesota, published in October’s ACS Chemical Neuroscience journal. There is currently no treatment for the brain disorder, nor is there a biomarker to pinpoint it before symptoms start surfacing in advanced stages.

Minnesota scientists, however, believe they have found a measurable indicator of early Alzheimer’s using a retinal hyperspectral imaging technique. If validated in further research, it could provide a big boost to treatment of this form of dementia.

“While Alzheimer’s disease cannot yet be treated with the intent to cure, early diagnosis with retinal screening can facilitate interventions with available therapeutics,” Robert Vince, director of the uniersity’s Center for Drug Design, said in a statement issued Nov. 11. “This could add years of productive, quality time to the patient’s lifespan.” 

The imaging technique allowed scientists to characterize light-scatter changes in the retinas of Alzheimer’s patients compared to healthy individuals. Scanning patients’ eyes, they sought out small quantities of a certain protein before it begins to collect in larger clusters to form plaques in the brain, which is an early sign of the disease’s progression.

For their initial experiment, Vince and colleagues enrolled 19 Alzheimer’s patients, whose condition ranged from mild cognitive impairment to advanced Alzheimer’s. They scanned each individual’s retinas and compared them to those of healthier subjects of the same age. Researchers then recorded light-scatter changes from varying retinal areas using a specialized camera coupled with a custom-designed spectral imaging system. 

They found that the highest detectable light signal was obtained in patients with mild cognitive impairment, compared to those with an advanced version of the disease. This signal suggests higher sensitivity of the technique during early stages of Alzheimer’s, Vince and colleagues wrote.

University of Minnesota scientists next plan to more rigorously test the imaging method in a clinical setting.