Secrets of the Eye; Little Is Known about How the Brain Ages -- Why Some People Lose Their Memory, Decision-Making Abilities and Attention Spans Years before Their Peers. [Derived Headline]

By Venteicher, Wes | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 7, 2016 | Go to article overview

Secrets of the Eye; Little Is Known about How the Brain Ages -- Why Some People Lose Their Memory, Decision-Making Abilities and Attention Spans Years before Their Peers. [Derived Headline]


Venteicher, Wes, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Little is known about how the brain ages -- why some people lose their memory, decision-making abilities and attention spans years before their peers.

As the nation's elderly population grows, scientists are looking for clues in an unexpected place: the eye.

Tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye, closely linked with vessels in the brain, could help detect the arrival of cognitive impairment, said Dr. Caterina Rosano, a UPMC epidemiologist who studies cognitive aging.

By detecting the changes earlier, photos of the vessels could help improve treatment, she said.

"The key here is early detection, detecting changes in the brain that would be completely invisible, even to the best neurologists and the best psychologists," she said.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Rosano is studying the eyes of a group of people with Type 1 diabetes, one of several chronic conditions that research shows may accelerate cognitive aging. If the method works for diabetics, it might work for the general population, she said.

Rosano thinks that poor blood flow to the brain, resulting from deterioration of the vessels, contributes to the brain's accelerated aging. Without blood, brain cells die, leading to impairment, she said.

Because diabetics lack the ability to regulate blood sugar, their bodies sometimes are flooded with the sticky substance. Their blood vessels become inelastic, losing the ability to smoothly accommodate the flow of blood. Blood pressure increases, hardening and scarring the vessels. In high-speed X-ray photos, the vessels appear "wormlike" or "tortured," she said.

Rosano is comparing the vessel deterioration shown in the photos to the results of tests that measure mental abilities such as memory, information-processing speed and decision-making. She is looking at 30 years' worth of eye photos, MRIs and other information from 209 people who are part of the ongoing Pittsburgh Epidemiology of Diabetes Complications study. She plans to finish the study by the end of the year.

When judging brain health, neuropsychologists rely on tests that are imprecise and expensive, such as MRIs, said Luke Stoeckel, a National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases project officer for Rosano's grant.

As a result, doctors often don't detect patients' cognitive impairment until it is fairly advanced, when treatment is less effective, Stoeckel said. …

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