Eye test ‘could detect early stages of dementia’

Analysing images of the eye could spot warning signs.
Analysing images of the eye could spot warning signs.
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Researchers are investigating whether a simple eye test could be used to identify the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

A three-year £1.1 million project will look at whether warning signs can be detected using special computer software to analyse high-definition images of the eye.

Evidence suggests that changes in the patterns of ocular veins and arteries can be linked to other disease such as stroke and cardiovascular disease.

A team at the University of Dundee’s school of computing have developed the software – known as Vampire – with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh.

Project co-ordinator Eman-uele Trucco, professor of computational vision at the University of Dundee, said: “If you can look into someone’s eyes using an 
inexpensive machine and discover something which may suggest a risk of developing dementia, then that’s a very interesting proposition.

“There is the promise of early warning in a non-invasive way and there is also the fact that we even might be able to use the test to differentiate between different types of dementia.”

Researchers will compare measurements of thousands of images with medical histories stored at Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital to see if a relationship can be established.

Mr Trucco said: “When changes occur in some parts of the body, you can see differences in the retinal vessels, eg in width, some vessels become thinner; some become larger; differences in the tortuosity, or how wriggly the vessels become; there are also differences in the angles when vessels split in two.

“These measurements can indicate a huge amount but to take them by hand is an extremely time-consuming, tedious process.

“The Vampire software interface allows researchers to take these measures repeatedly, reliably, and efficiently even when working with a large number of images.”

The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) has funded the project as part an £8m investment in research at 11 UK universities.

EPSRC chief executive Professor Philip Nelson said: “The UK faces a huge challenge over the coming decades, we have an ageing population and a likely rise in the numbers of people suffering from dementias.

“These research projects will improve our abilities to detect and understand dementias and how the disease progresses.”

Meanwhile, a mental health watchdog is calling on the Scottish Government to do more to help people with dementia, following a European conference held in Glasgow last week.

Colin McKay, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission said care in Scotland has been based around “the needs of the people running the service” for too long and would like to see a system where patients and their families took priority.

He was speaking in the wake of the Alzheimer Europe conference in which the Glasgow Declaration was signed by health secretary Alex Neil with the aim of improving the human rights of those with dementia.

Over 800 professional, people with dementia and carers met in Glasgow for the four-day conference which focused on “Dignity and autonomy in Dementia’”

Approximately 88,000 people have dementia in Scotland in 2014. Around 3,200 of these people are under the age of 65 with the figure is set to grow due to an ageing population.

Henry Simmons, chief executive of Alzheimer Scotland, said: “Scotland’s policy and strategy for dementia has been inspired and informed by a human rights-based approach. Yet there are still too many examples where this is not being implemented in practice and we have a great deal yet to do.”