Scientists can spot retinal cell death, predict Alzheimers

Alzheimer’s could soon be detected through a simple eye test, way before symptoms appear.

UCL scientists have found they can spot retinal cell death – and therefore brain cell death – in the retina.

“Few people realise that the retina is a direct, albeit thin, extension of the brain,” says Professor Francesca Cordeiro of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. “It is entirely possible that in the future a visit to a high-street optician to check on your eyesight will also be a check on the state of your brain.”

The technique uses fluorescent markers that attach themselves to the relevant cells and indicate the stage of cell death and can be seen with a customised laser ophthalmoscope.

“The death of nerve cells is the key event in all neurodegenerative disorders – but until now it has not been possible to study cell death in real time,” says Cordeiro. “This technique means we should be able to directly observe retinal nerve cell death in patients, which has a number of advantages in terms of effective diagnosis. This could be critically important since identification of the early stages could lead to successful reversal of the disease progression with treatment.”

Although the paper only describes work with rats and mice, Professor Cordeiro’s team has already started on human trials.

She says, “The equipment used for this research was customised to suit animal models but is essentially the same as is used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. It is also inexpensive and non-invasive, which makes us fairly confident that we can progress quickly to its use in patients.”

The research appears in Cell Death & Disease.