Identifying Alzheimer’s: positive indicators for a scientific breakthrough

Exciting new research has just been announced in Copenhagen, suggesting that eye and smell tests have the potential to identify Alzheimer’s disease. Detection of early stage Alzheimer’s disease could be aided by the identification of two new markers:


  • Eye examinations that identify the build-up of beta-amyloid, a protein found in excessive amounts in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease
  • A decreased ability to recognise smells, which may be an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease as well as cognitive impairment

These groundbreaking trials were reported at the July 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, in Copenhagen.

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Eye tests for Alzheimer’s

Two independent studies have found that the level of a protein known as beta-amyloid found in the eye could be significantly correlated with the amount of beta-amyloid found in the brain, thus enabling researchers to accurately identify individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in their studies.

One of the main characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease is finding a plaque-like build-up of beta-amyloid protein in the brain. Researchers have known that the accumulation of beta-amyloid can be found years before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease begin to manifest.

With the aging of the global population and increasing incidence of Alzheimer’s, scientists have been under pressure to find more simple, quick and less invasive tests to identify the disease. Alzheimer’s researchers are now strongly focusing on the area of early detection and treatment, as this is vital for limiting a disease that irreparably kills brain cells. Attempts to treat Alzheimer’s to date have generally failed as the brain damage of patients has progressed too far by the time they receive treatment for it to have any positive effect. Any successful treatment or prevention of disease strongly hinges on identifying the disease way before any symptoms are present.

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Research for these preliminary tests is still at its early stage, however scientists are confident that these tests can identify telling bio-markers for individuals who will go on to suffer Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers point out that these tests could be included in part of regular eye checks performed by opticians.  This would enable early detection, and combined with the right treatment, would prevent progression of the disease in a large number of people.

In Australia, scientists used the substance curcumin, found in the common cooking spice tumeric, as a fluorescent marker that enabled the beta-amyloid to be identified using imaging testing. Forty individuals were involved in preliminary testing, with every participant with Alzheimer’s correctly identified.  In addition, the tests correctly identified more than 80% of individuals who did not currently have the disease.

Lead author of the study, Dr Shaun Frost, from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO said: “We envision this study potentially as an initial screen that could complement what is currently used: brain PET imaging, MRI imaging, and clinical tests. If further research shows our initial findings are correct, it could potentially be delivered as part of an individual’s regular eye check-up.”

identifying alzheimers disease

According to Dr Frost, the images were so clear that they would enable accurate monitoring of those with the disease in order to follow its progression and response to treatment.

In the US, a different ointment was used in the eye to act as a fluorescent marker to determine the protein, with similar accuracy.

Deteriorating sense of smell and connection with Alzheimer’s

In other research findings presented at the conference, scientists suggested that a deteriorating sense of smell could also be an early indicator of dementia. American researchers at Harvard Medical School showed that individuals with a weaker sense of smell had smaller brain volumes in critical regions linked to memory.

A separate study undertaken by scientists from Columbia University in New York also found that weaker performance in smell tests were markedly associated with an increased occurrence of Alzheimer’s. Subjects were put through an “odour identification test” and for each point lower scored in the test, the risk for developing dementia actually increased by ten percent.

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It is hoped that in the future an inexpensive, low-tech smell test could spot those who need more extensive screening for dementia. The research continues.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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