An OCTA scan could even reveal changes in tiny capillaries - most less than half the width of a human hair - before blood vessel changes show up on a brain scan such as an MRI or cerebral angiogram, which highlight only larger blood vessels.
"Ultimately, the goal would be to use this technology to detect Alzheimer's early, before symptoms of memory loss are evident, and be able to monitor these changes over time in participants of clinical trials studying new Alzheimer's treatments", Fekrat added.
The researchers scanned the eyes of 39 people with Alzheimer's disease, 37 people with mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's, and 133 people without either of those diagnoses.
According to the research, these patients have less dense vessel webs in their retinas that could even be "sparse" in some areas. But the findings by Duke researchers could mean there may soon be an easier - and more cost-effective - way to detect and diagnose Alzheimer's. In addition, a specific layer of the retina was thinner in those with Alzheimer's.
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Since the retina is considered an "extension" of the brain because it sends signals to the optic nerve to create visual images, they wanted to see if similar blood vessel changes would occur in the eye.
According to a paper published in 2017, the amyloid-beta located in a person's spinal fluid begins to change and show signs of Alzheimer's decades before the more visible physical ones start presenting themselves.
Now the only ways to definitively diagnose Alzheimer's are through expensive brain scans or by taking a fluid sample from the patient's spinal cord.
While there are no methods to treat the disease, developing new ways to detect the disease in its earlier stages, without the need for invasive tests, could prove to be a catalyst for a new wave of clinical tests which do not rely on those involved in the later stages of the disease, in which brain tissue damage is already underway. But such techniques to study the brain are invasive and costly.
Ophthalmologist and senior author Sharon Fekrat, M.D., Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke, along with lead author Dilraj Grewal, M.D., Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke, expect that their work may one day have a positive impact on patients' lives. That appearance signifies a healthy brain, but in cases of Alzheimer's disease, the blood vessels appear different.