It’s an unfortunate truth that many of us know someone with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This is no surprise since AD is the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 5 million individuals in the U.S. This number is expected to triple by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative condition that causes problems with memory, thinking, mood, and behavior that gets progressively worse until it interferes with daily tasks. One of the main challenges of the disease is to diagnose it before it becomes symptomatic, because by the time AD is diagnosed, much of the damage has already been done.

For decades, the only way to officially diagnose AD was to analyze a patient’s brain after the patient passed away. Nowadays, physicians rely on positron emission tomography scans of the brain or cerebral fluid analysis to detect the disease, but these methods are expensive and invasive, and not widely available. Now a team of neuroscience investigators at Cedars-Sinai have developed a noninvasive eye scan they hope will be able to detect the disease years before patients experience symptoms. While scientists are still researching the exact causes of Alzheimer’s, what they do know is that it creates the degeneration and death of brain cells through a build-up of toxic proteins known as amyloid-beta deposits, the critical warning sign of Alzheimer’s. The Cedars-Sinai scientists discovered that Alzheimer’s disease affects the retina of the eye in much the same way it affects the brain. The high-definition eye scan they created can be used to identify these amyloid-beta deposits in the retina. As the study’s lead author pointed out, “The findings suggest that the retina may serve as a reliable source for Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. One of the major advantages of analyzing the retina is the repeatability, which allows us to monitor patients and potentially the progression of their disease.”

This is a significant development. The retinal imaging technique for identifying beta-amyloid deposits will allow for earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease, before it becomes symptomatic. Early diagnosis will make interventions like medication and lifestyle changes possible when they can still make a difference, and could give patients and their families more time to adequately prepare for the future.