Eye cells could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease

Changes to specific cells in the retina could help diagnose and track the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists say.

A team found genetically engineered mice with Alzheimer’s lost thickness in this layer of eye cells.

As the retina is a direct extension of the brain, they say the loss of retinal neurons could be related to the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer’s.

The findings were revealed at the US Society for Neuroscience conference.

The team believes this work could one day lead to opticians being able to detect Alzheimer’s in a regular eye check, if they had the right tools

Alterations in the same retinal cells could also help detect glaucoma – which causes blindness – and is now also viewed as a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s, the researchers report.

Scott Turner, director of the memory disorders programme at Georgetown University Medical Center, said: “The retina is an extension of the brain so it makes sense to see if the same pathologic processes found in an Alzheimer’s brain are also found in the eye.”

Dr Turner and colleagues looked at the thickness of the retina in an area that had not previously been investigated. This included the inner nuclear layer and the retinal ganglion cell layer.

They found that a loss of thickness occurred only in mice with Alzheimer’s. The retinal ganglion cell layer had almost halved in size and the inner nuclear layer had decreased by more than a third.

“This suggests a new path forward in understanding the disease process in humans and could lead to new ways to diagnose or predict Alzheimer’s that could be as simple as looking into the eyes,” said Dr Turner.

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