U of M study uses eye exam to detect early stages of Alzheimer's Disease

If the eyes are the windows to the brain, Dr. Swati More, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Drug Design, may have a peek at what the human retina reveals about the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

After conducting a small pilot study on 50 participants, Dr. More and other researchers in the department could be one step closer to detecting the early onset of the disease - with a simple eye exam.

The pilot study analyzed what researchers call “retinal hyperspectral imaging data,” which allows doctors to detect plaque development on the brain by taking a close look at the human retinas. 

“It’s exciting to see that the method did translate from an animal trial into a human trial,” Dr. More said. “Looking at our data, earlier the stage of the disease, better is the signature that we get.”

From her exam room, to the lab she calls her second home, Dr. More says the results offer a glimmer of hope -- especially if the technique and instruments can be standardized and merged into a routine eye exam.

The study, titled “Retinal Hyperspectral Imaging for Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease,” has not reported any side effects thus far, and researchers report an entire imaging session can take as little as 10 minutes.

During the exam, the device looks at the ways light interacts with the retina; a flash of light enters the eye and is reflected by the retina. Then, the way it is reflected by the retina indicates the presence of Alzheimer’s.

“Currently we don’t have great therapies to prevent or even delay the onset of the disease,” said Dr. Keith Vossel, a University of Minnesota associate professor of neurology.

“[Right now] we rely on spinal fluid tests and very expensive tests called PET scans…and these studies run upwards of $5,000 per patient,” Dr. Vossel continued.

The lack of practical Alzheimer’s screening options suggest an affordable, pain-free routine eye exam that reveals the earliest signs of the disease would be a phenomenal piece of the early detection puzzle.

“This is really exciting; if this is successful in the next phase, we think that this can help diagnosis,” Dr. More said. 

Which means that glimmer of hope in Dr. More’s findings could turn into a reliable reality within just a few years.

“We’re really hopeful that this will translate into a detection method where there are no symptoms, and patients can go to an annual eye exam and get to know what’s happening in their body and what precautions they need to take,” Dr. More said.

The results, set to be published this coming winter, are as timely as the indications are promising, given November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.

The next phase of this human trial, however, could be the most challenging. Part two of Dr. More’s work will involve a long-term study that will help researchers determine how early they can detect Alzheimer's. 

At that point, they’ll be looking to align what they discover with current clinical trials to hopefully unveil a treatment for this disease.

Dr. Vossel, however, reminds us changes in the brain that occur with this disease also occur in normal aging, so a routine eye exam that would detect early onset would be considered one of several image modalities that would help determine who's at highest risk.