Detecting Dementia and Alzheimer's Sooner

DEMENTIA HAS BEEN DECLARED A GLOBAL PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS, AFFECTING A STAGGERING 47 MILLION PEOPLE WORLDWIDE.

We all want to live long, healthy lives. But as dementia affects more and more people, it will become harder to age gracefully and maintain independence and dignity.

Dementia describes a range of symptoms that typically affects older adults, impairing memory, thinking and other cognitive abilities severely enough to interfere with daily life.

Its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease, accounts for over two-thirds of all cases and is both progressive and degenerative, slowly erasing the lives of those who have it.

Early signs of the disease include confusion, misplacing things, problems with speaking and writing, decreased judgment, and changes in mood and personality. It’s estimated that as many as 50% of Canadians with dementia are not diagnosed early enough, falling through the cracks of the health system and losing valuable time when care could make a significant difference to their quality of life.

“The diagnosis gap is definitely part of the challenge in scaling up treatment and care for those with dementia,” says Dr. Neeru Gupta, a world-renowned ophthalmologist and scientist in St. Michael’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. “We know that this disease is progressive and that there is no cure, so finding these cases as early as possible is our goal.”

Growing evidence suggests that brain changes resulting in dementia can begin 25 years before symptoms actually appear, making early detection and diagnosis extremely important.

There is no test to determine if someone has dementia early on, so current diagnosis relies heavily on measuring a patient’s cognitive decline over time, and conducting brain imaging or spinal fluid testing.

But Dr. Gupta and her research team may be on the brink of discovering it.

We use tools in the clinic now to diagnose every eye disease. Could the same or newer tools be used to diagnose dementia and Alzheimer’s? — Dr. Neeru Gupta

Using samples from the Human Eye Biobank for Research at St. Michael’s Hospital – a collection of eye tissue that is available to researchers from around the world to study human eye and brain diseases – Dr. Gupta examined eye tissue in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and control subjects. Her findings were astonishing: abnormal protein clusters existed in the eyes of many patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s; suggesting a biomarker – something that can be used to indicate the presence of disease – for dementia may in fact exist in the eyes.

This game-changing discovery could have profound applications for the early detection and diagnosis of dementia.

“This is a window into changing the way that we look at this disease,” says Dr. Gupta. “We have, for the first time, discovered a biomarker in the eyes of patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s that does not exist in the eyes of normal patients and is unique – it doesn’t look like anything else we’ve seen under the microscope.” While the early findings are promising, further investigation, including clinical studies and human trials will follow.

“Now that we know these abnormal proteins are there, what are they? What are they made of? How can we detect them in a clinical setting?” asks Dr. Gupta. “We use tools in the clinic now to diagnose every eye disease. Could the same or newer tools be used to diagnose dementia and Alzheimer’s?”

The potential impact of finding a biomarker for dementia in the eyes is revolutionary. It could lead to breakthroughs in clinical trials for treatments that target the disease in its early stages, resulting in improved quality of life for patients and their caregivers, or even open a new window to finding a cure.

WITH NO KNOWN CURE AND NEARLY 10 MILLION NEW CASES OF DEMENTIA EACH YEAR, THE HUNT IS ON TO FIND AN EASY AND ACCURATE WAY TO DETECT AND DIAGNOSE THE DISEASE BEFORE SYMPTOMS START. EARLY FINDINGS FROM A GROUNDBREAKING STUDY AT ST. MICHAEL’S HOSPITAL COULD OFFER A NEW WINDOW TO DIAGNOSING DEMENTIA.

To support the next phase of Dr. Gupta’s groundbreaking research at St. Michael’s, donate today.