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Simple Eye Examine May Predict Dementia: Changes in the Eye Reveal Brain Function

First Posted: Aug 25, 2014 11:06 AM EDT
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Changes in a person's eye may just predict changes in the brain. Scientists have found that retinal thinning can be used as an early marker for frontotemporal dementia even before the onset of cognitive symptoms. The findings could mean that earlier intervention strategies may be able to be employed, which could mean a better outcome for patients.

Although the retina is located in the eye, it's made up of neurons with direct connections to the brain. This means that by studying the retina, researchers can examine and track the change in neurons.

"The retina may be used as a model to study the development of FTD in neurons," said Michael Ward, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "If we follow these patients over time, we may be able to correlate a decline in retinal thickness with disease progression. In addition, we may be able to track the effectiveness of a treatment through a simple eye examination."

In this case, the researchers studied a group of individuals who had a certain genetic mutation that is known to result in FTD. They found that  before any cognitive signs of dementia were present, the volunteers had a significant thinning of their retinas compared to those who did not have the genetic mutation.

"The finding suggests that the retina acts as a type of 'window to the brain,'" said Li Gan, the lead researcher. "Retinal degeneration was detectable in mutation carriers prior to the onset of cognitive symptoms, establishing retinal thinning as one of the earliest observable signs of familial FTD. This means that retinal thinning could be an easily measured outcome for clinical trials."

The findings reveal that it may be possible to use a simple eyes examine to detect whether or not a person will develop dementia. This could mean a way to start treatments sooner.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

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