Study shows eye scans could diagnose Parkinson's disease early by seven years

ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent spoke to those behind the study, who have hailed it as having potentially 'massive' public health implications

Scientists have said the use of eye scans could help to diagnose Parkinson's disease in patients seven years before it would appear with symptoms.

The exciting development was made by teams at Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London's (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology.

ITV News was given exclusive access to the study, which used a 'machine learning' Artificial Intelligence (AI) programme to analyse hundreds of thousands of eye scans, ahead of its publication.

Despite the positive outlook, however, scientists have cautioned the technology is years away from being made publicly available as a diagnostic tool and requires regulatory approval.

The research used Optical Coherence Tomography scanners - as operated by opticians during eye tests - to take detailed images of the inside of a person's eye.

Dr Siegfried Wagner, Moorfields Eye Hospital, explained how these images would then be studied with the help of AI for changes within cells in a "specific area" of the retina, which indicate the presence of Parkinson's - a degenerative brain disease.

He said: "One of the unique things about Parkinson's is that it affects a particular type of cell in the brain, cells that use a chemical called dopamine.

"We actually have cells that use dopamine in the eye as well and most of them are located in a specific layer here of the retina."

The study analysed hundreds of thousands of eye scans. Credit: ITV News

Conclusions from the study found that, on average, patients were diagnosed with Parkinson's seven years before symptoms began to present themselves.

The use of data from eye scans has previously revealed signs of other neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and, most recently, schizophrenia, in an emerging field of research referred to as 'oculomics'.

Dr Wagner's colleague at Moorfields, Professor Pearce Keane, said the ultimate goal is for the technology to be rolled out to high street opticians.

"It has the potential to bring world class expertise out of specialised centres, such as Moorfields Eye Hospital, into the community and potentially into the homes of patients in the future. That could have massive implications for public health," he added.

Professor Pearse Keane believes the technology could have 'massive implications for public health'. Credit: ITV News

Prompt diagnoses could allow people to enter into treatment options earlier and provide an opportunity to get more out of life.

Angela Orchard, who lives with Parkinson's, said were such an assessment available today alongside a standard eye test then she would take it.

She said: "I think I would have it done because I would have got more activity out of my life than I have at the moment and I would have maybe gone to places that I haven't gone abroad or whatever and done things that I haven't done."

For the time being, high street opticians do not have the capabilities of diagnosing complex diseases, like Parkinson's, but oculomics looks set to play a major part in the future of medicine.

Parkinson's support and advice

  • If you are concerned you may have symptoms of Parkinson's the NHS recommends, in the first instance, that you make an appointment to see your GP. You may then be referred to a specialist for further tests.

  • Support for those living with Parkinson's can be found in a number of organisations, including Parkinson's UK, which operates a free helpline (0808 800 0303).

  • Parkinson's Care and Support UK is a charity that focuses on improving the lives of those affected by Parkinson's, whilst they are alive. Anyone who wishes to contact them can do so via their helpline (020 3380 2573) or website.

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