You probably heard the saying: “The eyes are the mirror of the soul.” But did you know that eyes are also the mirror to the brain health? Alzheimer’s, a progressive health issue that slowly destroys memory and other important mental functions, affects as many as 5.5 million Americans age 65 and older. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and early detection is critical to future care. But there is hope. Research shows certain eye exams can determine the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s before symptoms even appear.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, two studies demonstrate a way of detecting Alzheimer’s in a patient’s eyes in a matter of seconds. An imaging device called optical coherence tomography angiography was used in the research studies.
It enables physicians to see the smallest veins in the back of the eye. Since the optic nerve connects the eyes to the brain, researchers believe this connection mirrors the changes going on in the brain.
The results show people with Alzheimer’s have small blood vessels in their retina that have in some way been changed. Even people who simply have a family history of Alzheimer’s but no signs of the illness showed altered blood vessels.
Identifying Alzheimer’s is challenging. Current techniques can detect certain signs but aren’t practical for screening large amounts of people. This means that behavioral changes are often the only identifying characteristics, but these changes mean that Alzheimer’s is progressing.
“This project meets a huge unmet need,” Sharon Fekrat, M.D., professor of Ophthalmology at Duke University, said. “It’s not possible for current techniques like a brain scan or lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to screen the number of patients with this disease. Almost everyone has a family member or extended family affected by Alzheimer’s. We need to detect [it] earlier and introduce [care] earlier.”
Genes play a significant role in how Alzheimer’s progresses. A team of researchers from Sheba Medical Center in Israel conducted a study where they examined 400 people who had a family history of this illness but showed no signs or symptoms themselves. The researchers compared their retina and brain scans with those who have no family history of Alzheimer’s. They found that the inner layer of the retina is thinner in people with a family history. The brain scan showed the hippocampus (the area of the brain first affected by Alzheimer’s) had already begun to shrink.
Ygal Rotenstreich M.D., an ophthalmologist at the Goldschleger Eye Institute at Sheba Medical Center, said he is worried for these people with a family history of Alzheimer’s.
“A brain scan can detect Alzheimer’s when the disease is well beyond [the care we can offer. We need intervention sooner. These patients are at such high-risk.”
If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, talk with your eye care provider about the steps you can take to be more proactive with your care.