Can this eye scan detect Alzheimer's years in advance?

Researchers say early indicators of Alzheimer's disease exist within our eyes, meaning a non-invasive eye scan could tip us off to Alzheimer's years before symptoms occur.

It turns out the disease affects the retina — the back of the eye — similarly to how it affects the brain, notes neuroscience investigators at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California. Through a high-definition eye scan, the researchers found they could see buildup of toxic proteins, which are indicative of Alzheimer's.

"The findings suggest that the retina may serve as a reliable source for Alzheimer's disease diagnosis," said Cedars-Sinai associate professor Maya Koronyo-Hamaoui, lead author of the study, which published Thursday in the journal JCI Insight. "One of the major advantages of analyzing the retina is the repeatability, which allows us to monitor patients and potentially the progression of their disease."

The Alzheimer's Association reports about 5 million Americans live with the disease, a number expected to increase to 16 million by 2050. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

Cedars-Sinai called the finding, "a major advancement" in sniffing out the disease earlier. Expensive and invasive brain scans have been the norm in recent years and for decades diagnosis came only by looking at a brain after a person died.

"Our hope is that eventually the investigational eye scan will be used as a screening device to detect the disease early enough to intervene and change the course of the disorder with medications and lifestyle changes," said Keith L. Black, co-leader of the study and chair of the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurosurgery.

In another find, the study uncovered plaques in unchecked regions of the retina, said research associate Yosef Koronyo. The amount of plaque in the retine matched the plaque in certain parts of the brain.

"Now we know exactly where to look to find the signs of Alzheimer's disease as early as possible," he said.

Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman

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