Medical researchers now say that a simple eye scan could make a big difference in how doctors monitor the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), a nervous system disease.
In a new study, published online Jan. 1 in Neurology, a medical journal, doctors looked at the retinal lining of 105 people with recurrent MS and 59 patients with no signs of the disease.
"This study reports an important link between the inflammatory and neurodegenerative aspects of MS that should lead to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of tissue damage," said Dr. Fred Lublin, director of the Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis in a Medline statement from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "The techniques described may add to our ability to better perform studies of neuroprotective agents in MS."
Of the patients who experience MS relapse, doctors found that a section of the retina in the eye thinned at a rate 42 percent quicker than those in prolonged remission.
“This study suggests that retinal thinning, measured by in-office eye scans, called OCT, may occur at higher rates in people with earlier and more active MS,” said Robert Bermel of the Cleveland Clinic Mellen Center for MS, who wrote an associated editorial on the study’s findings, in a statement released by the American Academy of Neurology.
The study was conducted at the Johns Hopkins MS Center over a 21-month period during which participants received eye scans to monitor the thickness of their retinas every six months.
Patients whose MS diagnosis is less than five years old had the most tissue damage, as their retinal lining deteriorated 43 percent faster than those who had been fighting the disease for more than five years, according to the study.
Researchers also noticed that patients who relapsed and saw their health significantly decline while they participated in the study had their retinas thin 37 percent faster than others.
According to the NIH, there is no known cause of the onset of MS. The condition affects the nervous system with a range of symptoms from “visual disturbances” to “sensations such as numbness,” and can also disrupt cognitive functions.
Women are more at risk of developing the disease, who usually experience onset between 20 and 40 years of age.
While there is no cure for MS, Peter Calabresi, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in an American Academy of Neurology statement , that the study could prove useful in the future.
“As more therapies are developed to slow the progression of MS, testing retinal thinning in the eyes may be helpful in evaluating how effective those therapies are.”