Scientists have been granted £1.1m to investigate whether special software could be used to identify the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
A team at the University of Dundee's school of computing have developed the software – known as Vampire and which analyses high-definition images of the eye – with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh.
Previous studies have shown that changes in the patterns of ocular veins and arteries can be linked to other disease such as stroke and cardiovascular disease and the researchers hope the same may be true of the neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer’s.
Project co-ordinator Emanuele Trucco, professor of computational vision at the University of Dundee, said: "If you can look into someone's eyes using an inexpensive machine and discover something which may suggest a risk of developing dementia, then that's a very interesting proposition.
"There is the promise of early warning in a non-invasive way and there is also the fact that we even might be able to use the test to differentiate between different types of dementia."
Researchers will compare measurements of thousands of images with medical histories stored at Dundee's Ninewells Hospital to see if a relationship can be established.
Trucco said: "When changes occur in some parts of the body, you can see differences in the retinal vessels, e.g. in width, some vessels become thinner; some become larger; differences in the tortuosity, or how wriggly the vessels become; there are also differences in the angles when vessels split in two.
"These measurements can indicate a huge amount but to take them by hand is an extremely time-consuming, tedious process. The Vampire software interface allows researchers to take these measures repeatedly, reliably, and efficiently even when working with a large number of images."
The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) has funded the project as part an £8m investment in research at 11 UK universities.
Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC's chief executive, said: "The UK faces a huge challenge over the coming decades, we have an ageing population and a likely rise in the numbers of people suffering from dementias. These research projects will improve our abilities to detect and understand dementias and how the disease progresses."
It comes as a multimillion-pound collaboration between industry and academia, set up by the Medical Research Council, will hold its inaugural conference tomorrow.
The Dementias Platform UK brings together leading researchers from UK universities and drugs development companies to discuss better diagnosis initiatives, treatments and understanding of its progression.
The platform will look at the causes of dementia across a range of neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Motor Neurone Disease following millions of pounds of investment from the government for new technologies.
Life Sciences Minister George Freeman said the platform will make the UK the "best place in the world to study dementia".
"In our ageing society tackling dementia is one of the biggest challenges facing the NHS and care system in the 21st century," he said. "The government's commitment to investment in dementia infrastructure and research is vital if we are to maintain the UK's position as a world leader in life sciences and get patients earlier access to new treatments.
"By better understanding how the disease works we will be able to make a huge difference to patients' and their families' lives. These efforts will not only raise standards but reduce costs and make the UK the best place in the world to study dementia."
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