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Researchers continue to uncover new ways of identifying neurodegenerative diseases before the first signs strike.
One area of interest in this process has been eye scans which can help pick up red flags much earlier.
In recent years, this approach has been used to detect conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and even schizophrenia.
Now, research, published in the journal Neurology, suggests that eyes could help identify Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before diagnosis.
Researchers at University College Hospital and the Moorfields Eye Hospital used artificial intelligence in this breakthrough.
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The research team managed to identify markers of Parkinson’s in eye scans.
Their results were repeated using the wider UK Biobank database of healthy volunteers.
Looking at the two large, powerful datasets, the scientists were able to pick up subtle markers, despite Parkinson’s disease having a relatively low prevalence in the population.
Furthermore, postmortem examination of patients with the neurodegenerative condition has found differences in the inner nuclear layer (INL) of the retina.
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A reduced thickness of these layers was associated with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
High-resolution images of the retina now represent a routine part of eye care, including a type of 3D scan known as optical coherence tomography (OCT), which is widely used in eye clinics and high-street opticians.
In less than a minute, an OCT scan produces a cross-section of the retina in incredible detail down to a thousandth of a millimetre.
Lead author, Dr Siegfried Wagner of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital, said: “I continue to be amazed by what we can discover through eye scans.
“While we are not yet ready to predict whether an individual will develop Parkinson’s, we hope that this method could soon become a pre-screening tool for people at risk of the disease.
“Finding signs of a number of diseases before symptoms emerge means that, in the future, people could have the time to make lifestyle changes to prevent some conditions arising and clinicians could delay the onset and impact of lifechanging neurodegenerative disorders.”
While future studies are currently needed to confirm whether retinal imaging could support the diagnosis, prognosis, and complex management of patients affected by Parkinson disease, the research offers hope.
Professor Alistair Denniston, consultant ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Birmingham, said: “This work demonstrates the potential for eye data, harnessed by the technology to pick up signs and changes too subtle for humans to see. We can now detect very early signs of Parkinson’s, opening up new possibilities for treatment.”
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