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Research looking for new ways to test Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a unique category of dementia that is caused by two major proteins in the brain

By Alison Knill , in Health , on June 7, 2019

A University of British Columbia researcher is exploring less invasive ways to find Alzheimer’s symptoms in the body by looking into the eye.

Robin Hsiung, an associate professor in UBC’s division of neurology, conducted a study that used the eye and brain from people who had donated their bodies to science. He wanted to see if the number of protein deposits on the retina could be related to the number of protein deposits in the brain.

“It’s much easier to visualize the eye than look into the brain,” said Hsiung.

“We hope some of it will work because, again, it would be much less invasive, and accessible.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a unique category of dementia that is caused by two major proteins in the brain. Tau and amyloid proteins create deposits that lead to brain-cell damage.

Hsiung looked primarily at the amyloid protein deposits in the study and he did find a relationship. People who had more deposits on the retina also had more deposits in the brain and more severe Alzheimer’s.

The study is a promising advance in Alzheimer’s research because it’s a less invasive alternative for testing than what is used now.

Finding less invasive testing options is one research goal. Currently, the traditional method is taking a cerebrospinal fluid sample from the lower spine. This procedure takes time and not everyone wants to have a needle in their back.

Hsiung’s research on the eye is still in the early stages. He’s now working with a physicist to develop an optic scan that would allow them to look at live patients. If successful, the scan could become a more convenient way to measure the protein changes.

Another aspect that researchers always have to consider in looking at Alzheimer’s is that the disease progresses over time. Hsiung addresses that in his research by collecting blood samples from his patients and storing them in a biobank at UBC.

The biobank started in 2008, giving Hsiung 10 years of information on how the disease progressed in many different people. It also provides an opportunity to test new predictive technologies on the blood samples as they’re developed.

Blood sampling is already used as a common diagnostic test for heart disease and diabetes. Finding ways to predict Alzheimer’s through blood as well would make diagnosing easier and more familiar for patients.

Read about Ken Walker's experience with Alzheimer's