Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, debilitating condition that is characterized by significant loss of memory. It is the most common form of dementia, and affects millions of people around the world. With no known cause or cure, it is quite understandable that Alzheimer’s remains a subject of much research and debate in the medical community.
Until recently there has been no diagnostic test that can practically and definitively detect Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. The normal tests for diagnosis involve physical and neurological exams, mental status assessments, blood tests, and brain imaging to explain dementia-like symptoms. The results of all these tests are then examined beside the individual’s complete medical history. The catch in this process is that the disease cannot be detected until it has advanced to a point where signs and symptoms are present in a patient. While brain scans can effectively find hints of the disease up to a decade before it manifests, they are extremely expensive and thus impractical.
Last year, however, a group of scientists in Australia have proven that Alzheimer’s disease affects not only the brain, but the eyes as well. Studies showed that the blood vessels in the retina can reveal definitive evidence of Alzheimer’s. For the eye test, Alzheimer’s suspects’ pupils are dilated via chemical solutions, and then they are asked to look into the camera. These blood vessels are photographed, and then measured by a computer program. The procedure is non-invasive, and can be done in just a few minutes.
Findings from the research showed that with the eye test, Alzheimer’s individuals had different blood vessel widths from those in individuals who didn’t have the disease. A more in-depth study reveals that the protein amyloid beta, found in Alzheimer’s brain plaque, appears in significant amounts in the eye. In addition, subsequent brain scans supported these findings.
While scientists are still working on fine-tuning the test’s accuracy, there is much excitement regarding this breakthrough, as it proves that there is an established link between the brain, retina changes and Alzheimer’s disease. Other countries are following suit with eye tests of their own.
The implications of this new test are positive. The Alzheimer’s eye test is non-invasive, and results are seen almost immediately after the test is done. It is also a much practical option compared to the more expensive brain scan. As far as practical diagnostic tests go, the eye test for Alzheimer’s is a good one. While the test’s accuracy still remains an issue, the findings are reliable enough to warrant early treatment for the disease. Other researchers are looking into the possibility of testing the eyes and looking for abnormalities in eye structures in search for other debilitating neurological conditions.
Despite advances in technology, there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment is largely palliative, focusing on symptoms as they appear. The advantage of early detection is that it allows for more time to prepare the patient and loved ones—both financially and emotionally.