Scanning the Eye for Alzheimer's
Laser-based technology could make early detection possible| From Explorations | By Vicky Waltz
Lee Goldstein is developing early detection technology for Alzheimer's disease. Photo by Lightchaser Photography
Lee Goldstein is on a quest to eradicate Alzheimer's disease, and he's racing the clock. "The disease will bankrupt the U.S. health-care system if we don't intervene soon," he says. "We simply won't have the resources to handle the number of people who develop the disease."
The key, says Goldstein, a geriatric psychiatrist and neuroscientist at BU's School of Medicine and College of Engineering, is early detection. He and his colleagues are developing a laser-based diagnostic technology that will uncover the disease years — and possibly decades — before the first symptoms emerge.
"Alzheimer's is an exceedingly slow disease that starts many years to a decade or more before the beginning of cognitive decline," Goldstein says. "If we can combine new treatments with early detection, we can beat this disease and do so soon."
Alzheimer's disease, the leading cause of dementia and the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States in 2004, according to the Alzheimer's Association, occurs when sticky, tangled plaques containing deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid build up between nerve cells in the brain. Four years ago, Goldstein and his research team determined that this amyloid protein also collects in the lenses of the eyes in people with Alzheimer's disease and causes an unusual cataract that is different from common age-related cataracts.
"I was working with Alzheimer's mice," Goldstein says, "and I noticed they were developing dense bilateral cataracts in their eyes." Healthy control mice, on the other hand, showed no signs of cataracts. He then looked at the eyes of people with Alzheimer's disease and found the same cataracts. The discovery established the first evidence of Alzheimer's-linked pathology outside the brain and led Goldstein and his colleagues to develop a laser-based diagnostic technology that searches for amyloid protein buildup in the eyes. Goldstein hopes that in another three years or so, people will be able to ask their physicians for a laser-based optical screening test for Alzheimer's disease. Six years ago, he cofounded Neuroptix Corporation, a biotech company based in Acton, Massachusetts, that is developing the technology to make such screenings possible.
"Our most recent work suggests that we may be able to detect the disease at the molecular level from the earliest stages, hopefully well before the first clinical symptoms," Goldstein says.