Brain and Body

New Alzheimer’s Tool Could Detect the Disease Decades Before Cognitive Decline Begins

July 27, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Right eye retina
Photo credit: Danny Hope/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

A less expensive, non-invasive alternative to the current diagnostic options.

Presenting at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Toronto, Canada, researchers from the University of Waterloo discussed a new diagnostic tool that can detect Alzheimer’s disease well before the onset of symptoms.

The new technology was developed and patented by Professor Melanie Campbell, and it’s a non-invasive eye scan that uses polarized light to highlight deposits of amyloid proteins — one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s. The proteins can be found at the back of patients’ retinas decades before they experience the cognitive decline associated with the disease.

"Polarization imaging is promising for noninvasive imaging of retinal amyloid deposits as a biomarker of Alzheimer's," Campbell, from Waterloo's Department of Physics and Astronomy, said in a press release. "The ability to detect amyloid deposits in the retina prior to disease symptoms may be an essential tool for the development of preventative strategies for Alzheimer's and other dementias."

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The work was a collaboration between scientists at the University of Waterloo, the University of Rochester, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of British Columbia, Vivocore Inc. and InterVivo Solutions. The team has established the eye scan’s proof of concept in both human and animal models, showing that the scans are as sensitive as other more established methods used to detect Alzheimer’s.

Currently, researchers rely on expensive positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans, so the new method could provide a more cost-effective alternative.

Campbell explains that amyloid proteins are made up of fibers with different refractive indices, and they light up just like scotch tape when it’s placed between two polarizing filters.

“While other researchers thought that a dye was needed to make the protein visible, we were able to achieve the same results using optics and additional computer processing,” she said.

There’s still a lot for researchers to learn about Alzheimer’s disease, and we still have yet to discover a cure. However, detecting the amyloid deposits in the retina could serve as a biomarker for better diagnosing the disease long before it progresses with its typical symptoms.

"Early diagnosis is important, especially since treatment options are more limited later in the disease," said Campbell. "Widely available, inexpensive, early detection of amyloid would help researchers develop more effective treatments before the onset of symptoms."

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