Alzheimer's researchers studying link between eye and brain health

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NEW YORK (CBS) New research suggests a quick eye test could one day help doctors diagnose Alzheimer's disease.

Ninety-seven year-old Scott Hughes and her identical twin sister Virginia were always close. When Virginia started having trouble with her memory and thinking, Scott knew something wasn't right. Virginia was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"It was heartbreaking because she was so outgoing and loving," Scott Hughes said. "She wasn't going to be who she was before and that is tragic to see in someone you love."

With one twin having Alzheimer's and the other healthy, researchers at Duke Eye Center studying the link between eye and brain health, thought the sisters were a good case to examine. They took images of their eyes and discovered the twin with Alzheimer's disease had significantly decreased blood vessel density in the retina. That finding spurred a new study of more than 200 people.

"Cognitively normal, healthy individuals do not have these changes in their retina," said Dr. Sharon Fekrat, the study's lead researcher Dr. Sharon Fekrat. She says the eyes may be a window to our brain health. "These changes happening in the retina in the eye may actually mirror the blood vessel changes happening in the brain of individual's with Alzheimer's disease.

Hughes' sister Virginia died 14 months ago.

"Every night after dinner we had a conversation. Sometimes she would be able to respond and sometimes she wouldn't but she always knew that sister was calling," Hughes said.

She says she's grateful she and her sister had a chance to contribute to research together.

Researchers say they plan to study people who have the gene for Alzheimer's but don't have symptoms next to see they may be able to predict the development of the disease.