KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 26, 2022 – Jessica Alber, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences at the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island, is looking to change the way doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, a change that could raise new possibilities for treatment.
Alber has received a five-year, $10.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support her work using retinal imaging to screen for early changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The project, “Longitudinal validation of retinal biomarkers against cerebral imaging in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease,” could help provide a low-cost, minimally invasive screening technique to detect Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms appear.
While there are no current treatments that can slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, new developments in drug and lifestyle therapies indicate the potential for success with earlier intervention. Yet one of the primary challenges in treating the disease has been that it is difficult to diagnose. While clinicians can use positron emission tomography scanning or lumbar puncture to detect the build-up of amyloid and tau proteins, or “plaques and tangles,” that are hallmarks of the disease, the procedures are both invasive and expensive. Using retinal imaging as a “window to the brain,” Alber and collaborators seek to develop a more affordable and accessible screening tool that could potentially be part of a routine eye exam.
“In the near future, screening for risk in the general population will become increasingly important in order to treat people before they are experiencing the devastating loss in quality of life and cognitive function that affects them and their families,” said Alber. “The retina allows us to look at what might be changing in the brain in a cost-effective and minimally invasive way to identify people who are at high risk but not sick yet.”
The NIH grant builds upon Alber’s work with the Atlas of Retinal Imaging in Alzheimer’s Study (ARIAS). Led by URI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Peter Snyder, and Dr. Stuart Sinoff, of Florida-based BayCare Health System, the ARIAS study was launched in 2020 to create a reference database of structural, anatomic, and functional imaging of the retina to develop markers of Alzheimer’s disease risk and progression.
In addition to validating the retinal imaging biomarkers identified during the ARIAS study, Alber’s study, called ARIAS 2, will explore the potential for using Alzheimer’s disease blood plasma biomarkers in tandem with retinal imaging for greater sensitivity in detecting early-stage disease. “We don’t know yet if blood biomarkers can be used to identify preclinical disease, but we have seen some exciting developments in this area,” said Alber.
The ARIAS 2 study team is led by Alber. Other partners are Snyder, URI co-investigator; clinical site leads at Butler Hospital Memory and Aging Program, Washington University at St. Louis School of Medicine, and University of North Texas Health Sciences Center at Fort Worth; core leads at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and all three clinical research sites; and collaborators at Heidelberg Engineering and University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Founded in 2013, the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at URI is focused on investigating under-explored factors in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.
ARIAS 2 Study Team
Jessica Alber, Ph.D., Principal Investigator; Data Management and Administrative Core Lead; Retinal Imaging Core Lead, George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, University of Rhode Island.
Peter J. Snyder, Ph.D., Co-Investigator, University of Rhode Island.
Gregory Van Stavern, M.D., Co-Investigator, Site Principal Investigator, Washington University at St. Louis.
Cyrus Raji, M.D., Ph.D., Co-Investigator; Brain Imaging Core Lead, Washington University at St. Louis.
Tammie Benzinger, M.D., Ph.D., Co-Investigator, Washington University at St. Louis.
Beau Ances, M.D., Ph.D., Co-Investigator, Washington University at St. Louis.
Abraham Snyder, M.D., Ph.D., Co-Investigator, Washington University at St. Loui.
Shang-Kwei Song, Ph.D., Co-Investigator, Washington University at St. Louis.
Louisa Thompson, Ph.D., Co-Investigator; Cognitive Core Lead, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Butler Hospital.
Meghan Riddle, M.D., Co-Investigator; Site Principal Investigator, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Butler Hospital.
Fenghai Duan, Ph.D., Biostatistics Core Lead, Brown University.
Melissa Petersen, Ph.D., Co-Investigator; Blood Biomarker Core Lead, University of North Texas Health Sciences Center at Fort Worth.
Sima Mozdbar, O.D., M.P.H., Co-Investigator, Site Principal Investigator, University of North Texas Health Sciences Center at Fort Worth.
Stephanie Large, N.P., Co-Investigator, University of North Texas Health Sciences Center at Fort Worth.
Brian Fernandez, M.D., Consultant, Heidelberg Engineering.
Edmund Arthur, O.D., Ph.D., Consultant, University of Alabama at Birmingham.