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St. Anthony’s, Morton Plant launch $5 million Alzheimer’s study

Margie Manning



Dr. Stuart Sinoff, medical director of neurosciences for BayCare Health System’s West Region in Pinellas County.

Your eyes may hold the key to detecting early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s the idea behind a $5 million, five-year study backed by BayCare Health System, University of Rhode Island and other healthcare providers to see if retinal scanning can help clinicians detect Alzheimer’s disease 20 years or more before patients develop symptoms.

The project, officially named the Atlas of Retinal Imaging in Alzheimer’s Study, or ARIAS, will take place at two BayCare hospitals — St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater — as well as at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island. It’s funded largely by Morton Plant Mease Health Care Foundation and St. Anthony’s Hospital Foundation.

Local volunteers are being sought to take part in the study. Scroll to the bottom of the article to find out how to volunteer.

“The point is to look at the eye as the window to the brain, and to see if changes in your eye match up with changes in your brain,” said Jessica Alber, an assistant professor of research and cognitive neuroscientist at University of Rhode Island.

The study is structured to address both the growing number of people who have cognitive disorders as they live longer, as well as the ballooning cost of dementia cares, said Dr. Stuart Sinoff, medical director of neurosciences for BayCare Health System’s West Region in Pinellas County. Sinoff is one of the principal investigators for the study.

Currently, a key diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s is positron emission tomography, or PET, scanning, which is used to detect amyloid protein plaques, a toxic protein the interferes with normal brain function. But that tool is expensive. A PET scanner can cost more than $1 million and is not available in many parts of the world. In addition, a single PET scan can cost as much as $4,500. Although the scans can detect brain pathology related to Alzheimer’s before symptoms develop, the expense means the scans often are not done until after symptoms start showing up and when drug therapies may no longer be effective.

The study will test what investigators say is a less costly method of early detection and one that is accessible to more people. Key to it is technology to look at the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye.

As part of the study, researchers will take pictures of the retinas of participants with special blue, green and infrared lasers that are completely safe, but will allow for a microscopic look at its anatomy, changes in pigment chemicals and the movement of red blood cells in the retina.

“The cells in the neuronal layers of the retina are the same types as cells in the brain that are attacked by the disease, so cell changes in the retina might reflect the same changes that are happening in the brain,” said Peter Snyder, also a principal investigator and vice president for research and economic development at University of Rhode Island. “We can look more easily in the retina to see the effects of disease on the way blood is carried to brain and retinal cells.  We are also using a very new laser imaging technique that makes the chemical pigments in the retina fluoresce, and we think atypical changes in the amount of these chemicals might signal high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

When the study is complete, investigators want to make the technology available to optometrists and ophthalmologists, who could screen for the retinal biomarkers believed to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease and watch them over time.

“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,” Snyder said.

The ARIAS study will enroll 330 individuals between the ages of 55 and 80 years old, ranging from very healthy and low-risk adults, to persons with concerns about their memory, as well as patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. Each participant will be examined at four different points over a three-year period, and each study visit includes an eye exam, a medical history discussion, some tests of how people think and how well they remember new information, the retinal imaging that is very much like the kind done at the eye doctor’s office, and measures of mood, walking and balancing, sleep habits and other types of medical information.

Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater area residents can find out more about the study by calling Catrina Montgomery at 727-298-6077.

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