Newswise — The University of Rhode Island, in collaboration with BayCare Health System in Florida and The Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital, an affiliate of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, is launching a clinical trial of retinal screening processes that could help clinicians detect Alzheimer’s disease possibly two or more decades before patients develop life-altering clinical symptoms.
The five-year, $5 million Atlas of Retinal Imaging in Alzheimer’s Study (ARIAS) is sponsored by BayCare Health System’s Morton Plant Hospital and St. Anthony’s Hospital and funded largely by Morton Plant Mease Health Care Foundation and St. Anthony’s Hospital Foundation in Pinellas County, Florida.
Principal investigators for the study are Peter Snyder, Ph.D., URI vice president for research and economic development and professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, and Stuart Sinoff, M.D., who specializes in neuro-ophthalmology and is a medical director of Neurosciences for BayCare Health System’s West Region in Pinellas County. According to the two researchers, the objective is to create a gold standard reference database of structural, anatomic and functional imaging of the retina to enable the identification and development of sensitive and reliable markers of early Alzheimer’s disease and/or risk progression.
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The problem now is that one of the central diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s disease, positron emission tomography (PET) scanning devices, which can detect amyloid protein plaques (a toxic protein that interferes with normal brain function), are expensive. While they can detect brain pathology related to Alzheimer’s disease well before symptoms develop, the costs for such machines run into the millions and one test currently costs as much as $4,500. So, PET scans are often done after patients become symptomatic and when drug therapies may no longer be effective in slowing the disease in its earliest stages. Snyder also notes that a large portion of the world’s population does not have access to PET scans.
“When our study is completed, we want to make the technology available so that optometrists and ophthalmologists could screen for the retinal biomarkers we believe are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and watch them over time,” Snyder said. “If clinicians see changes, they could refer their patients to specialists early on. We believe this could significantly lower the cost of testing. We may then identify more people in the very earliest stage of the disease, and our drug therapies are likely to be more effective at that point and before decades of slow disease progression.”