A specialized camera and software analyzes the back of a person’s eye to detect patterns specific to Alzheimer’s disease before the symptoms develop. (Cole Burston/RetiSpec)

Eye scan may soon permit early detection of Alzheimer’s

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Canadian researchers are testing a new technology that could be widely used for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease which causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. Current tests involve PET scans or spinal taps. But a new technology has been developed involving a simple eye exam that could be done during routine eye checkups. 

The hyper spectral camera...is able to measure how light is reflected from the back of the eye–the retina,” says Dr. Sharon Cohen, medical director of the Toronto Memory Program. “The pattern of reflection translates into whether we have a signature of Alzheimer’s disease or not. It’s an ingenious biotechnology…(that would make) diagnosis pain free, inexpensive, accessible and scalable to the global population.”

Incidence of Alzheimer’s increasing worldwide

There are over half a million Canadians living with Alzheimer’s now and that increases by 25,000 every year, notes Cohen. Globally, 50 million people have this form of dementia and there are expected to be 150 million by the year 2050.

The scan of the eye can detect signs of amyloid, a toxic protein characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. (Cole Burston/RetiSpec)

Early diagnosis helps research, helps people

While there are no cures for Alzheimer’s, Cohen says it is still vital to have an easy way to diagnose it.

“Most cases are either undiagnosed or diagnosed late at the point of crises when families are struggling to cope. So, putting a label on what’s wrong with somebody is not trivial. It allows people to get care, to get information and to join clinical trials that will move forward the treatments of the future.

“It also helps research. If we properly identify and identify early who has or is developing the disease then we’re much more likely to hasten the treatment breakthroughs that we so badly need.”

Researchers at the Toronto Memory Program are doing validation studies now comparing the results they get with a retinal scan of patients who have had a PET scan or examination of spinal fluid. If the results are the same, they hope to commercialize the eye scanning technique and have it available within one year.

Dr. Sharon Cohen explains how the RetiSpec technology works and why it is so important. (Stephanie Cohen)
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