The Eyes Have It: Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

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They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but in the medical community the eyes might actually be the window to early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s yet another fascinating study that links changes in the eyes to Alzheimer’s disease. Using a laboratory rat model and postmortem human retinas from donors with Alzheimer’s disease, scientists found that structural changes in the retina – specifically, the retinal pigment epithelial layer and the choroidal layer – were strongly associated with the disease. The study was conducted at the hospital where I work, Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

“Greater magnitude in these eye abnormalities may mean a greater chance of a patient having Alzheimer’s disease,” said Alexander Ljubimov, director of the Eye Program at the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute and co-author of the study, in a press release. “We found that a rat model showed similar signs to the human ailment in the eye. If true in a larger number of humans, these findings may be used to study Alzheimer’s disease mechanisms and test potential drugs.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia, which is characterized by loss of memory and a progressive decline in cognitive function. Approximately 26 million people currently suffer from this crippling condition, which has no treatment or cure.

I previously blogged about evidence that beta-amyloid plaques, which typically build up in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s, may actually first appear in the eyes’ retina years before.

Both studies point to a promising future where, potentially, people who have no outward symptoms of Alzheimer’s may know in advance if they will eventually suffer from the disease. We’re not there yet, of course, but one big step closer.

Some argue that there’s nothing to be gained by knowing you’ll have Alzheimer’s years before any symptoms appear. I’d rather not know, they say. While I understand their point of view, I think the option to know is powerful. For those who do want to know, they can better plan for the future, like seeking out clinical trials in advance, preparing their finances and developing a support network.

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that’s expected to affect 104 million people by 2050. That’s a huge number of individuals who could potentially benefit from earlier detection.

Mind your health,

Dr. Keith Black

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