Tracking Alzheimer’s through the eyes

A women on a computer doing research

Alzheimer’s is a widespread condition that, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, affected some 5.2 million Americans in 2014 alone and is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. With that, researchers are hard at work trying to find a cure as well as more efficient techniques for earlier diagnosis. After all, it is a progressive disorder, so the earlier it is detected, the sooner steps can be taken to decrease cognitive decline.

“Researchers are creating a new tool for Alzheimer’s prediction.”

Now, researchers are in the process of creating a new tool for early diagnosis. As Scientific American reports, scientists from Neurotrack, located in Palo Alto, California, are currently developing a computerized visual-screening test to detect Alzheimer’s before it sets in. An Alzheimer’s eye test.

How does the Alzheimer’s eye test work?

For this test, participants view images displayed on a monitor as a camera tracks the movements of the eyes. The diagnosis is made according to these movements and is based on previous scientific findings by Neurotrack co-founder Dr. Stuart Zola of Emory University.

Zola conducted a study on memory function in monkeys. When the subjects were shown both a new and a familiar image, the eyes would focus on the new one longer. However, when the brain’s hippocampus is damaged (which is common in the Alzheimer’s brain), the subject does not focus on on image more than the other. Zola built on these findings and, after conducting similar studies on seniors, came up with the same results. They gave a half-hour test to nearly 100 seniors, and the scores predicted which participants would develop Alzheimer’s disease three years in advance.

A visual screening test may be the key to detecting Alzheimer's disease before it sets in.

With these findings in hand, the researchers at Neurotrack have created a five-minute online Alzheimer’s eye test that utilized Web cameras to monitor eye movement. The tool is being used in a three-year study of as many as 3,000 seniors in Shanghai, and the test will be evaluated alongside positron emission tomography scans in the capacity to predict Alzheimer’s.

What does this mean for the future of Alzheimer’s?

While this does not serve as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, it may provide a means for catching the disease before it sets in. By addressing the eventual onset of dementia earlier on, seniors may be able to slow and even halt its progression through medications, dietary adjustments and other lifestyle changes. Other methods of detection do exist, but many are complicated and expensive, such as blood tests and brains scans. This visual-screening test could provide a more affordable, less invasive option, as well as one that is more accessible through Web-based platforms.

Additionally, it could help scientists in further studies concerning the causes and potential cures for this form of dementia – the test could help researchers locate and identify appropriate candidates for clinical trials and studies.

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