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Current study: Mental illnesses can be diagnosed via the eyes

Current study: Mental illnesses can be diagnosed via the eyes


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The eye as a window to the brain

Diagnosing mental illnesses with unequivocal certainty even puts experienced psychiatrists to the test. In many psychiatric diseases, the symptoms are varied and partly overlap with other disorders. For example, both schizophrenia and depression can be completely listless. A current study now examined whether a retinal scan can lead to better diagnostics for mental illnesses.

Eye involvement has long been known for some diseases of the central nervous system such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Researchers at Ulm University Hospital have now carried out a study to determine whether the eyes can also provide information about mental illnesses. To this end, they performed eye examinations using optical coherence tomography (OCT) in patients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorders. The results were recently published in the specialist journal "Schizophrenia Research".

Schizophrenia has many faces

Schizophrenia is a difficult to diagnose and complex disease. Symptoms can range from loss of reality to delusions and hallucinations to disturbances in thinking and speech. Many sufferers also report visual problems. The view can become blurred, contrasts and movements are perceived more difficult. Ulm neurologists and psychiatrists have now discovered abnormalities in the retina in the eyes of schizophrenia patients.

The window to the brain

The retina and the optical nerve develop directly from the midbrain. For this reason, the eye is increasingly being perceived in medical research as a “window to the brain”. The research team led by the Ulm psychiatrist Professor Carlos Schönfeldt-Lecuona and the neurologist Professor Elmar Pinkhardt has now used an imaging method from ophthalmology to test whether psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia can be detected in the eye.

Course of the study

The researchers used so-called optical coherence tomography, a non-invasive and three-dimensional imaging method that can be used to determine the thickness and volume of the retinal layers. The team applied this procedure to 26 Ulm patients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorders. The scans were then compared to a healthy control group.

New marker for schizophrenia discovered

"For the first time, we performed a high-resolution single-layer analysis of the retina in schizophrenia patients and a control group that matched their age and gender," reports Professor Schönfeldt-Lecuona in a press release on the study results. The results were clear: As the investigation showed, those affected by schizophrenia had a greatly reduced thickness and a smaller volume in almost all measured retinal layers. The researchers speak of statistical significance compared to healthy people. With a long period of illness, the total volume of the nerve fiber layer decreases continuously.

Schizophrenia affects the retinal layers

"Together with the studies that show an MRI brain volume change, our findings provide further evidence that schizophrenia causes a narrowing of the retinal layers that can be detected with an OCT scan," Professor Pinkhardt summarizes the results. The underlying mechanisms of structural retinal changes are not yet sufficiently understood.

Can a retinal scan be used for diagnosis?

"It is quite conceivable that OCT could help in the future, for example, to identify the different sub-forms of schizophrenia more quickly and even make the therapy more individual," the researchers explain. However, more extensive investigations are necessary for this. (vb)

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