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Left to right: Dr. Massoud Motamedi and Dr. Gracie Vargas from The University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Grady Rylander and Dr. Thomas Milner from UT Austin lead the research team.

Although symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease don’t manifest until later in life, the disease begins to take hold decades earlier. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) are collaborating on ways to detect Alzheimer’s earlier in life.

Dr. Grady Rylander, an ophthalmologist and professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering is working with lead investigator Dr. Massoud Motamedi, a UT Austin alumnus and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UTMB, to build instruments that may detect early signs of Alzheimer’s. Other collaborators include Thomas Milner, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Gracie Vargas, a professor at UTMB and alum of the UT Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering. Graduate students Michael Gardner and Vic Baruah round out the UT Austin team.

Researchers at UT Austin have developed an imaging device that uses scattering angle diverse Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) to noninvasively detect changes in the retina. Initially Milner and Rylander developed this tool to detect glaucoma, which, like Alzheimer’s, is another neurodegenerative disease. Researchers have found that they can use OCT to infer whether or not mitochondria, the part of the cell that makes energy for cells, is changing, which could be crucial in the field of Alzheimer’s detection. Cell mitochondria change morphology early in the spectrum of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s occurs when amyloid proteins accumulate in the brain. Researchers hypothesize that this may happen in the retina too, which is also part of the brain. In the brain, the accumulation of amyloid proteins is toxic and the exposure of tissue to them leads to the destruction of neurons, which leads to Alzheimer’s. Researchers hope to establish a correlation between changes they are observing in the retina with changes happening with neurons.

“This is a team effort,” says Motamedi on the collaboration, “We consider ourselves lucky to have someone like Grady on our team, a neural ophthalmologist who understands engineering and what’s happening at the cellular level with the retina, combined with Milner’s ability to build instruments, and our own expertise with building instruments and using those with the necessary animal testing.”

The research team has two jobs: to show that the instrumentation they have developed can noninvasively image and detect changes in the retina’s mitochondria, noninvasively, and to use a powerful fluorescence microscope to see what is triggering the mitochondrial dysfunction that causes disease.

Ultimately researchers hope to gain better insight into the process and mechanism of Alzheimer’s and its progression, which could lead to better intervention and management processes.

This story is part of our Research Bench to Better Living series, which explores collaborations between biomedical engineering and healthcare.