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Scientists report that AI eye scans can spot Parkinson’s disease seven years before symptoms.

Through the analysis of eye scan data and the application of machine learning, scientists have validated the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify subtle indicators of Parkinson’s disease several years before an official clinical diagnosis. This research aims to uncover methods for early detection, potentially offering opportunities to impede the disease’s advancement.

London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology employed artificial intelligence to examine a dataset and identify retinal markers.

This procedure detected structural distinctions in the eyes of individuals with Parkinson’s disease compared to those without the condition. Remarkably, this research has illuminated the possibility that eye scans may have the potential to detect early signs of Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before the conventional diagnostic timeline.

The study, released in the Neurology journal on 22nd August 2023, leveraged two extensive health data collections – the AlzEye dataset and the UK Biobank database – to discern these subtle markers despite the relatively low occurrence of Parkinson’s disease in this population.

Researchers delved into data derived from optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans, a 3D imaging technique renowned for its detailed retinal cross-sectional views. They scrutinised records from a cohort comprising 154,830 patients aged 40 and above who had visited eye hospitals in London from 2008 to 2018.

This meticulous process was then replicated with data extracted from a medical database, encompassing 67,311 healthy volunteers aged between 40 and 69. Remarkably, it unveiled that individuals with Parkinson’s exhibited a thinner ganglion cell-inner plexiform layer and inner nuclear layer within the eye. These markers were discerned, on average, seven years before clinical symptoms manifested.

OCT scans, commonly employed by optometrists, offer valuable insights into monitoring eye health by revealing cellular layers beneath the skin’s surface. Researchers propose that scrutinising these layers in the years preceding symptom onset could potentially facilitate earlier disease detection.

Scientists are still surprised by what they can find with eye scans.

Claire Bale, the Associate Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, stated: “Intervening earlier to stop the loss of precious brain cells is the key to preventing the condition.

“And because the eye scans analysed in this study are non-invasive and already in routine use, this could be easily put into practice in the NHS.”

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”.

“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 disease,” study co-author Siegfried Wagner from the University College London said.

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