The human eye reveals all

Aussie researchers have once again done their country proud, having identified that the human eye could unlock the puzzle of Alzheimer’s disease.

By Yasmin Noone

The human eye- the window to one’s soul – could also provide a window into a world free of Alzheimer’s disease.

Australian researchers have identified a potential method for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease using the blood vessels in the retina of the eye. 

The preliminary findings of the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle (AIBL) Flagship Study of Ageing pilot were presented to the world’s best at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Paris, earlier this week.  

The AIBL team examined retinal photographs of people with Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment and healthy participants and examined a variety of parameters, including the width of retinal blood vessels.

While the findings are preliminary and require further study, it identified that the width of certain blood vessels in the back of the eye were significantly different for people with Alzheimer’s disease when compared to the “healthy controls”.

These changes and differences correlated with a brain imaging benchmark indicative of Alzheimer’s disease and the deposition of amyloid plaque in the brain, as measured by PET PiB imaging. 

CSIRO Australia researcher, Shaun Frost, who worked on the flagship study and presented the findings in Paris, commented that although the studies are very preliminary, they are extremely encouraging.

“Since amyloid plaque build up in the brain occurs years before cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s are evident, a non-invasive and cost-effective retinal test may hold promise as an early detection tool for the disease,” said Mr Frost. 

“We hope that in the future our measure could be used with blood-based tests to help doctors identify who needs further assessment with PET imaging and MRI for Alzheimer’s, but more research is needed.”

The AIBL is a large collaborative study that brings together world-renowned researchers to advance our understanding of the causes and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and to help develop preventative strategies.

Director of CSIRO’s Preventative Health Flagship, Professor Richard Head, said “…While preliminary and requiring verification, these findings highlight an important direction to be taken in this disease that has wide impact on society.

“The findings highlight the enthusiasm and quality of the research in Australia in the area of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Presidential recognition

French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, commended the international community for collaborative efforts to advance research during his keynote presentation to more than 5,000 of the world’s leading dementia researchers at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference yesterday.

Through the French National Plan on Alzheimer’s Disease, President Sarkozy set a global precedence for governmental action to eradicate Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association, who are running the conference, commented that Sarkozy’s presence was a great honour, reflecting the importance of eradicating the disease.

As Sarkozy took the stage, appreciation for his efforts to advance Alzheimer’s research, treatment and care was evident. The Alzheimer’s scientific community rose to their feet and applause echoed throughout the room.

“I am delighted that France is hosting the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference for the first time ever,” President Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy praised the scientists in the room for their dedication to advancing research and acknowledged the profound effect Alzheimer’s has on people across the world.

“You embody world class scientists. You embody the hope of millions of patients with the disease,” he said. “Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. It impairs a patient’s identity. The things they remember, they way they perceive time, their ability to find bearings in space. The patients suffer, as do the people around them.”

Sarkozy also described the great investment France has made in advancing Alzheimer’s research and providing those affected with affordable treatment and care options. Through the French National Plan, the government has pledged €1.6 billion to Alzheimer’s-related programs over a five-year period.

“We want to make sure no one with Alzheimer’s disease gets left out, that no French family has to carry burden alone. We want to make sure no opportunity to advance research is overlooked,” he said. “I personally meet the people rolling out this plan twice a year for a progress report. People in France can track progress on the internet.”

The Alzheimer’s Association stated it would like to see many of the aspects of the French National Plan included in the United States National Alzheimer’s Plan that is currently being constructed by the U.S. government.

Sarkozy said that positive movement on Alzheimer’s disease rests partially in international collaboration, similar to the kind displayed at AAIC.

“I hardly need to tell you that it is impossible to achieve anything noteworthy alone,” he said. “Your discussions at this conference show that international cooperation is flourishing.”

“I have seen your enthusiasm and I know international research has moved to a new phase. Let me assure you that international leaders share your dedication to the cause.”

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