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Alzheimer's Disease International estimates that the number of people living with dementia worldwide - nearly 44 million in 2014 - will almost double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.

There is no single test that can show if a person has Alzheimer's, but doctors can almost always determine if a person has dementia, although it may be difficult to determine the exact cause. Diagnosing Alzheimer's requires careful medical evaluation, neurological testing, and sometimes brain imaging and blood tests to rule out other causes of dementia.

Most of the testing for early disease - MRI scans of the brain, brain PET scans looking for amyloid, and spinal taps looking for certain proteins in the spinal fluid - are not very accurate, and they are invasive and often expensive.

Researchers have now turned to findings in the eye to help with early detection and are hoping to find ways to make the diagnosis earlier when potential treatments may have a better outcome. There is also hope that these tests will be less expensive and invasive then the other options.

One of the tests that has shown promise is an OCT of the retina. Almost every eye doctor’s office already has an OCT, and so if this research proves fruitful, the test could be done relatively cheaply because there is not a need to buy more expensive equipment. Right now, the average OCT exam is reimbursed at about the $50 per exam level, much less than the cost of an MRI or PET Scan.

Neuroscientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco showed a proof of concept in frontotemporal dementia, which is like Alzheimer’s but attacks much earlier and accounts for just 10% to 15% of dementia cases. They found that patients with frontotemporal dementia had thinning of the neuron layer of the retina on OCT.

In a study at Moorfields Eye Hospital they also found that people who had a thinner layer of neurons in the macula on an OCT exam were more likely to perform poorly on the cognitive tests - a clear warning sign they may be undergoing the early stages of dementia.

Study leader Dr. Fang Ko, said: “Our findings show a clear association between thinner macular retinal nerve fiber layer and poor cognition in the study population. This provides a possible new biomarker for studies of neurodegeneration.”

A second marker that is getting a careful look is identifying the presence of amyloid in the eye. Amyloid, thought to be one of the key causes of Alzheimer’s, which makes up most dementia cases, is often found to have formed into clumps and plaques in the brain. Scientists at Waterloo University in Canada found people with severe Alzheimer’s disease had deposits of a protein amyloid on their retinas.

Research conducted at Lifespan-Rhode Island Hospital in Providence co-led by Peter Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University, and Cláudia Santos, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, is attempting to detect amyloid in the retina by OCT and follows people over time to see if the amyloid increases and if it correlates with cognitive impairment.

Another angle being pursued by a company called Cognoptix is looking for amyloid in the lens of the eye. Using Cognoptix's SAPPHIRE II system, which detects amyloid in the lens, a 40-person Phase 2 clinical trial was conducted at four sites. The study recruited patients who were clinically diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease (AD) via a rigorous neuropsychological and imaging workup. The study, using age-matched healthy controls, showed outstanding results of 85% sensitivity, and 95% specificity in predicting which people had probable AD.

The company is now planning a Phase 3 study that must show a strong correlation in a bigger study group to obtain ultimate FDA approval.

One of the other items I was going to include in this post was information on what visual symptoms occur in dementia patients and how family and friends can support them but I found an outstanding review already available online by the Alzheimer’s society that covers all those points. If you have a loved one with dementia this is an excellent read and I highly recommend you take the time to review it.

 

Article contributed by Dr. Brian Wnorowski, M.D.

This blog provides general information and discussion about eye health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately licensed physician. The content of this blog cannot be reproduced or duplicated without the express written consent of Eye IQ.

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Ask Dr. Stewart Your Eye Care Questions

What can be expected during a contact lens fitting?

A patient can expect to have a different experience when having a contact lens fitting. In addition to the eyeglass exam, questions will be asked to determine which contact lens will work best for them. Will they want to leave the lenses in their eyes overnight or will they remove them every day? Will they wear them only occasionally or will they be for everyday use? Do they want a contact lens that they throw away every day or do they want a contact lens that they have to clean and disinfect? If the patient is over age 40 and has a compromised ability to see up close, how will they see up close with their contact lenses? Will they wear readers over their distant contacts, or will they wear multifocal contacts, or will they wear monovision?

Are some people more prone to having Dry Eyes than others?

Experiencing dry eye symptoms is more common as we grow older, particularly in people 50 years of age and older. Hormonal changes in women who are experiencing menopause or who are post-menopausal. Inflammation in our body can affect the tear gland's ability to produce tears. Eye or health conditions such as glaucoma, diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren's Syndrome can be associated with Dry Eyes. Environmental conditions such as dry winter air, dry indoor heated air, working on the computer, and wearing contact lenses can cause Dry Eyes.

Are there advantages to single-use contact lenses? What are they?

Single-use daily wear contacts are convenient to the patient and a healthy recommendation from their eye doctor. At the end of the day, the patient only has to dispose of the contacts. There is no need to take the contacts out to clean and disinfect them. The patients time and money spent on solutions and caring for them are eliminated. Not to mention that the next time they wear a contact, they will be wearing a brand new contact! The single best recommendation your eye doctor can make is to recommend single-use daily wear contacts. They are the healthiest contact that can be worn. The contact lens pathology issues of wearing the same contact for two or four weeks such as neovascularization, microcystic edema, and bacterial infections are greatly reduced.

What is an eye infection?

Your eyes can get infections from bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Eye infections can occur in different parts of the eye and can affect just one eye or both. Two common eye infections are conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) and lid styes which are swollen lid bumps that can also be painful. Common signs of an eye infection are pain, itching, or a sensation of a foreign body in the eye, photosensitivity, redness or small red lines in the white of the eye, discharge of yellow pus that may be crusty upon awaking, and tears.

What happens during a typical Diabetic Eye Exam?

Your Eye Doctor will evaluate the back of your eye called the Retina to check for leaking blood vessels. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when elevated blood sugars damage the walls of the blood vessels. The vessel walls may thicken, leak, develop clots, close off, or grow balloon-like defects called microaneurysms.

My eyes tear all the time. Why do you call it Dry Eyes?

Your eyes have extra tears because your eyes produce extra tears to combat irritation and dryness. A better way to describe Dry Eyes is tear film instability, which refers to the composition of your tears not being in the proper composition. Stopping eyes from producing extra tears is a goal in the treatment of Dry Eyes.

At what age should my child have his/her eyes examined?

If you ask 10 different Doctors you will get 10 different answers. Newborns have their eyes checked in the birthing ward for starters. From birth to age 5 their eyes are growing. At age 5 is a good time to schedule a regular eye examination, however, if any unusual eye behavior is observed under age 5 an eye exam should be scheduled at that time. Unusual eye behavior such as eye squinting, a head tilt, or having to get close to see.