They say the eyes are the windows to the soul but they can also provide insight into the mind and body through locally engineered devices that can test retinas for early signs of Alzheimer’s, stroke and blindness.

The revolutionary devices developed in Perth are being used to treat preventable blindness and to signal Alzheimer’s and the likelihood of a stroke up to 20 years before symptoms appear.

Research director of the CSIRO’s Australian e-Health Research Centre and ophthalmology technology lead professor Yogesan Kanagasingam says the hardware and software technologies can identify various ocular biomarkers to detect the chronic diseases.

“Whatever happens in the body can be seen in the eye, ” he says.

Promising results from one device which can detect Alzheimer’s and stroke symptoms were last year presented to the Alzheimer Association’s international conference in Copenhagen, drawing both global acclaim and renewed hope for preventive strategies.

The 200 participants in the Alzheimer’s trial had their eyes tested for beta-amyloid plaques and fluoresces, which are the substances that can build up and clog the brain, causing memory loss and cognitive problems in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The participants were made to use a dietary supplement containing curcumin, the bright yellow component of the spice turmeric commonly used in Indian curries.

Curcumin binds strongly to beta-amyloid plaques and fluoresces, making the plaques visible as bright spots in the eye scans obtained from cameras with a fluorescent light source.

Measurements of the number of plaques, their size and distribution were then used to calculate a Retinal Amyloid Index for each patient and compared with other biomarkers or indicators of Alzheimer’s.

It is hoped that the ability to detect the disease so far in advance could help doctors and scientists find a way to prevent the build up of beta-amyloid in the brain.

Though there are no drugs at present to treat Alzheimer’s, it is believed breakthrough drugs are as little as three years away.

The trial, a joint venture between the CSIRO, Edith Cowan University, Neurovision Imaging and the McCusker Foundation, delivered final results in October, last year.

The other CSIRO device drawing global acclaim is the EyeScan and its Remote-I telemedicine software and automated diseases grading system, which has been trialled in remote WA.

The device tests for early signs of eye disease such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

While procedures to test for eye disease have been around for many years, the EyeScan and its software is revolutionary because it is the first multifunctional device able to test remotely, send the images to the cloud for analysis and provide automatic diagnosis on diabetic retinopathy.

Prof Kanagasingam says diagnosis is currently possible only for one condition but this feature will soon be extended to consider other diseases and problems such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and other diseases.

In the meantime, city-based opthamologists would analyse the scanned images sent to them via satellite broadband.

Prof Kanagasingam says it can be a life-saving device in some developing countires, where life expectancy after blindness is only a few years.

He says trials in remote in the Goldfields and Great Southern had extended eye healthcare to a range of people who would have normally missed out.

Trained health professionals travelled to remote communities, screening participants with the telemedicine system, then sending the results via satellite to city specialists, and to the cloud, for diagnosis.

To date, 1000 patients have been screened in WA and Queensland and diagnosed by ophthalmologists, revealing 82 cases of diabetic retinopathy including eight people who were in the process of going blind.

Prof Kanagasingam, an ophthalmology researcher, says he worked with local mechanical, biomedical and optical engineers in 2007 to create the lightweight, low-cost, portable EyeScan, which combined seven existing eye tests into one machine.

The machine won the 2006 WA Inventor of the Year award.

The WA-engineered EyeScan technology was licensed to Silicon Valley-based Tagus Ventures last year.

It is being used at NASA’s International Space Station.

The Remote-I telemedicine software system is used on millions of people in China’s Guangdong province.


© The West Australian