National uses AI scan to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s in the eyes

The relentless pursuit of detecting and combating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease has presented a challenging battle for families and the medical community. However, a potential solution may lie in a simple eye scan at an optometrist’s office. RetiSpec, a Toronto-based medical imaging company, is utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and retinal scans to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s. The company is currently seeking regulatory approval for its scan in Canada and the U.S. If approved, it would be the first of its kind in either country.

Alzheimer’s is often not detected early, making it difficult to discern the first signs of the disease. Sharon Cohen, a neurologist and medical director of the Toronto Memory Program, explains that they often refer to it as “probable Alzheimer’s” because it can be misdiagnosed. With the emergence of precision medicine treatments, it is crucial to accurately diagnose the disease, as treating someone for cancer when they don’t have it would be nonsensical.

Currently, medical professionals rely on expensive and invasive tools like PET scans or spinal taps to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s. However, these tools are not readily available to all patients. RetiSpec aims to address this issue by using AI technology mounted on an optometrist camera. The camera conducts a retina scan, providing a picture of the back of the eye. Since the back of the eye is connected to the brain, this scan can help identify the presence of amyloid, a protein that accumulates in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. If amyloid is detected, it indicates the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology.

The number of Canadians living with Alzheimer’s disease is increasing rapidly. As of 2022, around 600,000 Canadians faced Alzheimer’s or dementia, and this number is projected to exceed 955,000 by 2025. By 2050, it could surpass 1.7 million. Aging is a significant risk factor for dementia, with most cases occurring in individuals over the age of 65. As the baby boomer generation ages into their later years, dementia will become even more prevalent.

The Alzheimer’s Society, alongside optometry clinics and funding from the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative, aims to alleviate the burden through RetiSpec’s new technology. Cohen, whose parents both battled Alzheimer’s, believes this advancement can offer hope for future generations. Although the disease hasn’t been cured, it is an encouraging time for progress.

The RetiSpec study commenced in October 2022, focusing on cognitive testing and retinal scanning in Toronto’s community to facilitate early detection of Alzheimer’s. The study has seen strong responses, with over 500 people screened in optometry settings alone. Optometrists, such as Negar Sohbati, have had positive experiences using the AI technology, streamlining the process of screening patients over the age of 55 with memory loss or changes. The retinal scanning process takes just two to three minutes, making it quick and efficient.

While the retinal scan results cannot currently be shared with patients due to lack of approval from Health Canada, the plan is to send the results to the patient’s family doctor for further discussion if amyloid is found. If Health Canada approves the technology, RetiSpec hopes to integrate it into optometrist routines for eye exams.

Catherine Bornbaum, the head of clinical operations and partnerships at RetiSpec, is eager to hear back about approval within a year. She believes that technology like RetiSpec has significant potential to impact lives and offer better options for patients and families living with Alzheimer’s. By pushing the boundaries and thinking innovatively, better solutions can be found to combat this complex disease.

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