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Eye exam could identify early signs of Alzheimer’s, researchers say

A relatively simple eye exam that might be able to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s years before any of the disease’s outward symptoms show is undergoing a clinical trial in Rhode Island. The researchers hope that the exam could some day be available at optometrists and opthalmologists’ offices and enable patients to get early Alzheimer’s diagnoses at much lower costs than is possible with today’s systems.

“We believe this could significantly lower the cost of testing,” said Peter Snyder, a principal investigator in the study who is also the University of Rhode Island’s vice-president for research and development and professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences. “We may then identify more people in the very earliest stage of the disease, and our drug therapies are likely to be more effective at that point and before decades of slow disease progression.”

The University of Rhode Island is co-sponsoring the clinical trial along with Butler Hospital in Providence and BayCare Health Care System, a Florida-based network of 15 hospitals and other health centers. They have jointly pooled $5 million for the effort.

Physicians can currently search for signs of Alzheimer’s via PET brain scans, which look for buildup of amyloid plaques in brain tissue. Receiving one of these tests costs thousands of dollars and is usually not covered by insurance, however.

Snyder and other researchers are investigating whether biomarkers indicating Alzheimer’s appear in a patient’s retinas and would be detectable during the eye exam. If they are correct, it might negate the need for a more expensive brain scan.

The clinical trial will seek to enroll 330 people between the ages of 55 and 80. The researchers will examine all patients at different times over three years, according to an announcement.

 

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