Health Check: Eye exam for Alzheimer's disease

Researchers at Butler Hospital are using the eye exam as a way to look for possible signs of Alzheimer's disease. (WJAR)

Doctors say it's a possible new way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease.

It involves an eye exam and it's being studied at Butler Hospital in Providence.

For 69-year-old Susan Sullivan, this is the third Alzheimer's study she has enrolled in at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital.

There's a reason why.

"Because both my mom and my grandmother had Alzheimer's," said Sullivan.

She's had memory testing, has undergone a PET scan to help determine if she has a buildup of the amyloid protein that is associated with this memory robbing disease.

"So far, so good,” said Sullivan. “Knock on wood. I haven't had any problems so far."

But, in the name of prevention, she continues to volunteer for research. This time, she’s having a special eye exam.

"We're hoping that the eyes will be the window to the brain in the fight against Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Stephen Salloway, director of the Memory and Aging Program at Butler.

"We're very hopeful,” said Jessica Alber, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at the hospital. ”This is a new cutting-edge technology."

The test begins with eye drops that numb and then dilate the pupils. This way Alber can take a good look inside each retina to see if there is a buildup of the amyloid protein.

"In the future, if we validate the method, that it could eventually be a diagnostic test,” said Alber. “And that's the hope is to cut down on the effort and expense of doing something like an amyloid PET scan."

And that's why it's important that more people step up and volunteer for prevention studies like this. For one thing, turns out most people will find they are not at risk.

"Approximately 70 percent of people who volunteer find out that they're at lower risk for Alzheimer's," said Salloway.

And for those at risk, they're testing special medications.

"These are specially targeted medications that bind to abnormal proteins, in this case it's amyloid protein, to try to lower it," said Salloway.

But again, they need volunteers, with or without a family history.

"I have two daughters and if I can do anything for them or the rest of the community, I'll do everything I can to try to find something that will either slow down or prevent people from getting this disease," said Sullivan.

Sullivan is part of what is called the A4 Prevention Study, which is recruiting people between the ages of 65 and 85. You can also sign up for the Prevention Registry, which will keep you updated on Alzheimer’s trials in our area.

Butler also has a list of all current clinical trials.

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