AI-Powered Retina Scans May Help Detect Alzheimer’s Early

Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating neurodegenerative condition, may soon be detectable through a simple retina scan at the optometrist’s office, thanks to the advent of artificial intelligence (AI).

“Eyes are often referred to as windows to the brain,” explains Changiz Taghibiglou, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). “Our eyes represent an externally accessible part of the brain.”

Taghibiglou and his colleague, Sara Mardanisamani, are collaborating with a team of local doctors and scientists to develop a non-invasive AI screening tool for early detection of Alzheimer’s. Currently, lumbar punctures are used to collect cerebrospinal fluid samples for testing in individuals exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

“Postmortem examination remains the definitive method for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease,” Taghibiglou notes. “Pathologists can examine brain tissue after a person’s passing.”

The research team is training an AI algorithm to recognize degeneration patterns associated with Alzheimer’s. They will analyze decades-old optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans of the retinas from approximately 100 recently diagnosed individuals over two years. These scans will be compared to scans from a control group of healthy individuals.

“We will examine the thickness of the optical nerve and retinal layers, looking for alterations,” Taghibiglou explains.

The ultimate goal of the research is to integrate the AI tool into optometrists’ offices. If the algorithm detects abnormalities, the patient’s family physician will be notified. Early detection, before symptoms manifest, could enable timely interventions and lifestyle modifications to improve patient outcomes.

“Individuals may modify their lifestyles, engaging in physical activities to decelerate the progression of this neurodegenerative disease,” Taghibiglou says. “They can delay the onset and slow the progression of the disease.”

The research project, titled “Screening eyes of people in Saskatchewan with non-invasive imaging technologies and artificial intelligence for early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease,” has received a $150,000 Impact Grant from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

“We are immensely grateful for this funding,” Taghibiglou expresses. “Without it, we would not have been able to initiate this project. It provides significant support for our research.”

While the current focus is on Alzheimer’s detection, the researchers envision that this approach could be applied to detecting other diseases in the future, such as Parkinson’s. They aim to develop their research into a database or application that would facilitate collaboration among clinicians in patient care.

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