Eyes are windows to the soul – and the rest of your organs - Hindustan Times

Scientifically Speaking | Eyes are windows to the soul – and the rest of your organs

ByAnirban Mahapatra
Feb 06, 2024 08:00 AM IST

According to a new study, changes in the retina's layers can help identify diseases. A simple eye scan might offer insight into an individual's overall health

The common saying that the eyes are the window to the soul might need to be modified now based on new research indicating that the eyes also provide a clear picture of someone’s health.

The retina is composed of ten distinct layers and can be considered an extension of the brain(Karolina Grabowska) PREMIUM
The retina is composed of ten distinct layers and can be considered an extension of the brain(Karolina Grabowska)

A team of researchers, led by Dr Nazlee Zebardast from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, conducted a fascinating study that was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on January 24. Their work focused on the retina, which is a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye. They wanted to see if examining the retina could help predict not just eye diseases but also other health issues like heart disease, mental health conditions, and diabetes.

The retina is composed of ten distinct layers and can be considered an extension of the brain. It is easy to look at with special cameras, making it a useful tool for doctors. Before this study, doctors already knew that the health of the retina provides clues about certain health problems. However, the range of health conditions that were linked to retinal health had not been examined in detail.

What Dr Zebardast and her team did was much more detailed than what had been done before. They used a technology known as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) imaging, which allows for detailed cross-sectional pictures of the retina, revealing the intricate structures and thickness of these layers. Aided by machine learning models, the research analysed OCT images of the retinas of 44,823 people in the United Kingdom’s Biobank, along with genetic data and health records collected for an average of ten years. This holistic approach provided a meaningful way to understand the relationships between retinal health, disease, and genetic factors.

What Zebardast and her team found was amazing. They discovered that changes in the thickness of the retina's layers could forecast the risk of developing not just eye diseases, but also other serious health issues such as neurological conditions, heart problems, lung diseases, and metabolic disorders.

Particularly, thinner ganglion cell complex and photoreceptor segment layers were linked to an increased risk of death, independent of common risk factors. A thinner layer of nerve fibres in the retina was connected to glaucoma, and a thinner photoreceptor segment was linked to age-related macular degeneration, poorer metabolism and heart and lung health.

Associations were also found between retinal layer thinning and alcohol and tobacco use, as well. The researchers could also predict a person’s age or sex from retinal scans.

This research is particularly compelling because it hints at a straightforward and benign way to detect diseases from routine screening. Many diseases are caught after a battery of tests, often only initiated once a patient presents symptoms. This study offers a tantalising prospect for a future where a retinal scan could alert individuals to their predisposition to many health conditions in advance, offering a window for treatment that could mitigate or even prevent the onset of disease.

The direct link between many health conditions and the change in layers of the retina will need further examination before possible application in clinical settings. What’s more, we don’t know exactly why retinal layer thickness changes in association with many of these health conditions. Future research can establish a stronger link between the mechanisms underlying these changes.

The study had other limitations as well. The study's participants, drawn from the UK Biobank, were predominantly white, British, and between 40-70 years old, so the results might not be the same for everyone. Further, the presence of potential confounding factors—variables not accounted for in the research—could influence the observed associations between retinal health and detected diseases. More research is needed with a diverse group of people and different study designs to confirm these initial findings.

Despite these limitations, the study represents a significant leap forward in preventive medicine. The ability to use retinal images not only for predicting eye diseases but also for broader health conditions would revolutionise healthcare and patient management.

Anirban Mahapatra is a scientist and author. His second popular science book, When The Drugs Don’t Work: The Hidden Pandemic That Could End Medicine, will be published this year. The views expressed are personal

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