Retinal vascular fractals and cognitive impairment

Dement Geriatr Cogn Dis Extra. 2014 Aug 27;4(2):305-13. doi: 10.1159/000363286. eCollection 2014 May.


Background: Retinal microvascular network changes have been found in patients with age-related brain diseases such as stroke and dementia including Alzheimer's disease. We examine whether retinal microvascular network changes are also present in preclinical stages of dementia.

Methods: This is a cross-sectional study of 300 Chinese participants (age: ≥60 years) from the ongoing Epidemiology of Dementia in Singapore study who underwent detailed clinical examinations including retinal photography, brain imaging and neuropsychological testing. Retinal vascular parameters were assessed from optic disc-centered photographs using a semiautomated program. A comprehensive neuropsychological battery was administered, and cognitive function was summarized as composite and domain-specific Z-scores. Cognitive impairment no dementia (CIND) and dementia were diagnosed according to standard diagnostic criteria.

Results: Among 268 eligible nondemented participants, 78 subjects were categorized as CIND-mild and 69 as CIND-moderate. In multivariable adjusted models, reduced retinal arteriolar and venular fractal dimensions were associated with an increased risk of CIND-mild and CIND-moderate. Reduced fractal dimensions were associated with poorer cognitive performance globally and in the specific domains of verbal memory, visuoconstruction and visuomotor speed.

Conclusion: A sparser retinal microvascular network, represented by reduced arteriolar and venular fractal dimensions, was associated with cognitive impairment, suggesting that early microvascular damage may be present in preclinical stages of dementia.

Keywords: Cognition; Cognitive impairment; Fractal dimension; Microvasculature; Retina.