Research shows smell, eye tests could help detect Alzheimer’s

  • Article by: FREDRICK KUNKLE , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 8:21 PM

Two separate studies found that decreased ability to detect odor may point to onset of dementia.

A simple test of a person’s ability to detect odors and noninvasive eye exams might someday help doctors learn whether their patients are at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research presented Sunday.

With Alzheimer’s disease spreading fast among the world’s aging population, researchers are increasingly focused on the search for new ways to detect and treat the brain-killing disease in its earliest stages.

In two separate studies on the connection between dementia and sense of smell, teams of researchers found that a decreased ability to detect odors in older people, as determined by a common scratch-and-sniff test, could point to brain cell loss and the onset of dementia.

In two other studies, researchers showed that noninvasive eye exams also might offer a way to identify Alzheimer’s in its early stages.

The findings — which were presented Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark — raise hopes that doctors could develop simple, inexpensive diagnostic tools that would hunt down reliable biomarkers of a disease that affects more than 5 million people in the United States.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive and incurable disease that begins in areas of the brain associated with memory. It is the leading cause of dementia in older people, usually striking after the age of 65. It robs people of their cognitive abilities, speech and, ultimately, their identities. Eventually, it shuts down the most basic body functions, resulting in death.

The studies are just a few of those that will be discussed at the six-day Alzheimer’s Association conference, which has grown since the nonprofit first organized the event in 1988 in Las Vegas. The conference, which became annual in 2009, brings together thousands of researchers from more than 60 countries to discuss the latest developments in detecting and treating the disease.

The four studies released Sunday were united in their search for easily detectable biomarkers for Alzheimer’s.

Scientists have long suspected a link between a person’s ability to detect odors and the slow destruction of brain cells caused by Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in the disease’s early stages.

“We envision a future where we can predict risk and then do things to lower risk,” said Matthew Growdon, a fifth-year student in a joint program between Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, who analyzed data from one of the studies.

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