Novel retinal biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease

Dr. Faisal Beg is one of five BC researchers supported through the British Columbia Alzheimer’s Research Award. Established in 2013 by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), Genome British Columbia (Genome BC), The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation (PARF) and Brain Canada, the goal of the $7.5 million fund is to discover the causes of and seek innovative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Millions of people worldwide are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In the absence of a complete understanding of the disease, therapeutic trials have been unsuccessful and there remains no cure. Detecting the onset of AD is difficult as the changes in behavior are subtle and hidden. Biomarkers that can reliably detect AD at the earliest possible stage are essential for disease monitoring and treatment to improve the quality of life for patients.

Imaging shows that the brain has a protein called amyloid, which accumulates beyond normal amounts in AD. However, brain imaging exams for amyloid are expensive, can be invasive, and not easily available, and as a result, cannot be used for general screening. Studies suggest that amyloid also accumulates in the retina of individuals with AD, but this has not been proven.

Dr. Faisal Beg, a biomedical engineer and professor in the School of Engineering Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU), is leading a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from SFU, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and McGill University to find the connection between the eye and AD by investigating it as a potential source for the earliest biomarkers for the disease.

The team is developing computational tools and image processing technologies to examine chemical biomarkers, structural degradation, and functional loss in the eye that may be associated with AD. This work could be the basis for a new retina imaging device using laser light that can show the presence of amyloid in the retina. The technology would improve understanding of the disease mechanisms underlying the accumulation and serve as an early indication that the protein is also accumulating in the brain.

Beg’s research could lead to an inexpensive, non-invasive retina exam for use in clinics to screen everyone on a regular basis for the earliest signs of amyloid. Besides having the potential to aid in the early diagnosis of the disease, the imaging techniques may also be able to track the progression of AD and assess the efficacy of treatments under development.