A/Prof Wijngaarden’s research uses hyperspectral imaging (HSI) technology, which was first developed by NASA engineers to image Earth from space, to provide detailed information about the minerals in the soil and to map plant life. The team has adapted this technology to scan the retina of the eye as a way to detect signs of AD.  

A/Prof Wijngaarden explains that “the retina provides a convenient window to the brain”. Taking an image of the retina is quick, inexpensive and pain-free. Research suggests that key changes that occur in the brain in AD also occur in the retina. The detection of these signs of the disease, otherwise known as biomarkers, with a simple eye scan, could revolutionise the detection of AD. The existing tests, such as lumbar punctures or positron emission tomography (PET) scans, are expensive, invasive and not widely available.

Will this research help with early treatment of AD?

Imaging technology itself cannot cure AD, however it could be a key enabler of clinical studies of new treatments for AD. Detecting the earliest changes of the disease, before symptoms, such as memory loss, occur is important, as this is when new treatments may be able to delay or prevent progression of the disease. A/Prof Wijngaarden hopes that once effective therapies for AD are available, the eye scan technology will allow the easy identification of the people who stand to benefit from treatment, before the damage from AD occurs.

A work in progress

Research into retinal imaging for AD has progressed rapidly in the last 5 years. However A/Prof Wijngaarden recognises there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before the eye scan is widely available. More research is underway, both in Australia and internationally, to confirm that the eye scan may be useful for the early detection of AD.

In parallel, the team is busy building a low cost retinal camera so that the test can be widely available. “Developing a medical device is a complex and challenging task”, says A/Prof van Wijngaarden.  “It not only requires regulatory approval of the camera itself, but also of the methods that we use to find the biomarkers from the images that we capture”.

A/Prof van Wijngaarden estimates that if all goes to plan it will be a few years before both the camera and the AD biomarker test are approved for use.  After this, the speed of adoption of this test will be the next challenge. “Key to this will be the availability of effective treatments for the disease”, says van Wijngaarden.

Team work is essential

“One of the greatest joys of developing this technology has been working with a dynamic and diverse range of collaborators including neurologists, geriatricians, eye specialists, mathematicians, data scientists and engineers”. The research team has also worked with astronomers and astrophysicists because there are similarities in the methods used to analyse astronomical images and the eye scans.  Drawing on a wide range of perspectives has enabled the team to make big strides.

Funding is crucial

A/Prof Wijngaarden highlights that none of this work would have been possible without the visionary support of philanthropists . The Yulgilbar Alzheimer’s Research Program has supported the work from its earliest stages, “their support gave my team the freedom to think big and test ‘blue sky’ ideas”.

The research team has since secured other sources of funding including from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Fund and the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation.

There is hope

This research has been driven by a huge clinical need for better tests and treatments for AD. A/Prof. Wijngaarden explains that research offers hope for meaningful treatments for the disease, “it can’t come soon enough for those affected by AD and for their loved ones”.

Interested in this research?

The University of Melbourne, in conjunction with the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, has 2 fully funded PhD scholarships to advance this research. The scholarships are open to a wide range of researchers and A/Prof. van Wijngaarden encourages eligible students to apply.

What our MACH Care of the Ageing consumers say

“I experienced the sadness that Peter mentioned in this article, as my late partner succumbed to AD. I hope that Peter’s work helps to support the development of treatments for this terrible, degenerative condition.”  Judy McCahon – MACH Care of the Ageing Consumer Representative. 

“This is amazing lateral use of NASA technology; I appreciate it is at an early stage with many steps before it may become mainstream. It may be a while to go, however there is light at the end of the tunnel. With research by people like Peter, diagnosis may be made much cheaper and easier.” Barry Baulch – MACH Care of the Ageing Consumer Representative.