The number of people with dementia worldwide is expected to grow from 50 million in 2018 to 82 million in 2030. As this condition presents decades before patients show any signs or symptoms, a recent study notes, “There is a pressing need to identify early cognitive function changes that may precede symptom onset and predict eventual cognitive decline.”

Cognitive impairment (CI) complications impact the retina, and, in contrast to existing treatments, retinal imaging is noninvasive and more affordable. The pilot study determined that analysis of combined structural-functional parameters may provide a useful clinical marker of CI.

The prospective study included 16 healthy controls and 20 CI patients with no ophthalmic history who were older than 55. The researchers observed significant correlations of vascular patterns with the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test and full-field electroretinogram. Specifically, analysis of only certain anatomical segments (the macular and optic disc regions), rather than the retina as a whole, more clearly illustrated the reduced complexity of the vascular network as it degenerates in CI patients.

“Overall, this pilot study would promote the investigation of multimodal, longitudinal models using the eye as a window to the brain to facilitate a low-cost approach for CI detection and change our understanding of CI,” the study authors concluded in their paper.

DeBuc DC, Feuer WJ, Persad PJ, et al. Investigating vascular complexity and neurogenic alterations in sectoral regions of the retina in patients with cognitive impairment. Front Physiol. November 9, 2020. [Epub ahead of print].