Health Team

New Duke study hopes to detect Alzheimer's

Posted June 5, 2015

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— It can be hard to distinguish between a "senior moment" and the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, but researchers at Duke University hope to soon be able to tell the difference.

Eileen Morgan, 68, often participates in studies through Duke's Alzheimer's Research Center. She said her grandfather died from the disease.

"It is a very devastating disease when you watch your loved one just gradually disappearing from you," she said.

All participants take a standard test to measure thinking and memory. According to doctors, Morgan is part of a "normal cognitive" group in a new Alzheimer's study. Other participants have mild cognitive impairment or known Alzheimer's Disease.

Every participant undergoes an exam - not looking into the brain, but into the eye.

"As we often say, eyes are the window to the soul," Dr. Heather Whitson, a geriatrician with Duke, said. "We think that eyes may be the window to the brain."

Retinal scanning software, developed at Duke, uses optical coherence tomography (OCT) to capture cross-section images of the layers in the retina.

Abnormal thinning of layers or evidence of abnormal protein deposits could be the early indicators of the disease, according to doctors.

"People would love to use the eye, and structures of the eye to really investigate if we can pick up early signs of Alzheimer's," said Dr. Eleonora Lad, an ophthalmologist.

Unlike other screening tools, obtaining retinal scans offers high resolution images that are painless, non-invasive and inexpensive.

"If these tests prove successful, it would really be a game changer for Alzheimer's," said Whitson.

Next summer, Duke researchers will compare the results of the three study groups. In two years, researchers hope to confirm if the retinal scans are a useful tool for early detection.


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