Retinal changes could indicate severity of schizophrenia, study finds

Conducting an OCT scan of the retina. Credit: Alexandra Hisch.

Scientists have discovered that the retina in patients with schizophrenia is different from that in healthy individuals.

These differences might help doctors identify patients who are likely to experience a more severe course of the illness.

The findings were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The retina, from an evolutionary standpoint, is an extension of the brain and shares the same genetic makeup.

This makes it a useful and accessible area for researchers to study the central nervous system, especially in illnesses like schizophrenia, which involve genetic changes.

The research team, led by Emanuel Boudriot from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, examined the retinas of about 230 individuals, including both schizophrenia patients and healthy controls.

They used a technique called optical coherence tomography (OCT) to take detailed images of the retinal layers and measured the electrical signals from individual nerve cells.

“Our results show that some retinal layers were significantly thinner in schizophrenia patients, and their electrophysiological signals were significantly altered,” explained Florian Raabe, the study leader.

For the first time, scientists also found that these retinal changes were more pronounced in patients with severe symptoms and those with a higher genetic risk for schizophrenia.

This suggests that the changes in the retina are directly linked to the disease itself, rather than other common factors like smoking, obesity, or diabetes, which are more prevalent in schizophrenia patients than in the general population.

The study provides a snapshot in time, but researchers emphasize the need for long-term studies to confirm whether patients with significant retinal changes typically have a more severe progression of the illness. This would involve tracking patients from the time of their diagnosis over an extended period.

In the future, measuring retinal changes at the time of diagnosis could help psychiatrists predict which patients are at higher risk and need closer monitoring. This could lead to better personalized treatment plans and more timely interventions.

The retina’s connection to the brain makes it an ideal candidate for studying the central nervous system in schizophrenia. Unlike more invasive methods of studying the brain, examining the retina is relatively simple and non-invasive, providing valuable insights into the disease.

This groundbreaking research highlights the potential of using retinal measurements to better understand and predict the severity of schizophrenia.

With further studies, this approach could become a vital tool for psychiatrists, helping them to identify and support patients who are likely to face more severe symptoms of the illness.

By continuing to explore the relationship between retinal changes and schizophrenia, scientists hope to improve the diagnosis and treatment of this complex mental health condition, ultimately leading to better outcomes for patients.

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