The power of the eye has always fascinated man, who has declared since ancient times that these enigmatic visual organs are "the mirrors of our soul". The latest developments in psychiatry may now add some weight to this concept, as a recent research study has indicated that the eye may hold the key to the diagnosis of severe mental illness.

An innovative new tool has been invented by British scientists which, through the analysis of visual responses, can distinguish between various different types of psychotic disorder. The new device is a camera that works by monitoring eye movements in patients while they observe a variety of pictures on a screen; patients with schizophrenia, for example, will focus less on the images than those suffering from other mental health problems such as bipolar disorder or depression.

It can often be very difficult for doctors to identify exactly which syndrome is causing symptoms, so the test provides a valuable step forward in the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of those with serious mental illness.

Madhu Nair is the technology consultant who has created the camera in conjunction with Aberdeen University’s Dr Philip Benson and its Chair of Mental Health, Professor David St Clair.

"Recent advancements in eye-tracking technology have enabled the use of eye movement abnormalities as reliable markers to assist diagnosis of these disorders," he said. "It is a step change for psychiatry, in which brain scans and DNA techniques have so far failed to produce results that will help in diagnosing patients. The eye test produces results with 95 per cent accuracy within 30 minutes for conditions that could otherwise take several years to diagnose."

Nair hopes that the test will eventually be adopted by the psychiatric profession but more research is required before it is deemed suitable for widespread use. "Patients should be able to access these tests through their healthcare providers within the next few years, " he said.

The new technology has had a warm reception from the psychiatric profession and Professor Nick Craddock of the Royal College of Psychiatrists declared it a valuable advance in the treatment of mental illness:

"Laboratory tests that can help in prompt and accurate diagnosis of severe mental illness will be immensely valuable," he said. "This link between abnormal eye movement and severe mental illness warrants more research. These disorders have physical effects in the brain and body, and are not just “all in the mind”."

Other recent studies have revealed the value of visual responses in the diagnosis and treatment of other disorders, with similar technologies now being used for the early diagnosis of autism (see Unknown Country " Mysteries of Autism Revealed" –

The new method developed by Nair and his team is actually based on the principles of a theory that is more than a century old, however, as psychiatrists in the early 1900s had previously noted that abnormal ways of looking at objects can be indications of psychosis, and alternative practitioners have also been using eye-based diagnostic methods, such as iridology, for centuries.
Iridology is an ancient diagnostic tool based on the belief that all of the organs of the human body are connected and that each organ has a corresponding location that can be seen in the iris of the eye, and that the dominant shade of the iris can indicate an individual’s predisposition to illness.

"Constitution is the whole of an individual’s inherited and acquired characteristics. It represents the reactive capacity of an individual in establishing the capability for adaptation," states Iridology International."Constitutions are genotypic and expose specific kinds of pathological processes that may occur in an individual."
The technique has always been decried by conventional science, but one scientist, senior lecturer and medical researcher at the University of South Australia Matthew Leach has already practised the technique and had very positive results.

"I used to use it … not as a stand-alone diagnostic tool but as another tool to aid a diagnosis," he said. "You might have a whole heap of clinical signs that point towards something and this approach might support that whole picture."

Optomap Retinal Images have recently been hailed as the modern day iridology. During the procedure, a digital picture is taken of the retina, the layered tissue lining the inner surface of the eye. The Optomap imaging system bypasses the iris and scans approximately 200 degrees of the retina; it can detect signs of glaucoma, diabetes, hypertension and even cancer.

In other related studies, scientists have discovered that it may become possible to detect conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and glaucoma during routine eye checks. A research team recently discovered that genetically engineered mice with Alzheimer’s lost thickness in their retinas. As the retina is a direct extension of the brain, the loss of retinal neurons could be associated with the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer’s.

The findings, which were revealed at the US Society for Neuroscience conference, indicate that, with the right tools, opticians may one day be able to detect Alzheimer’s when conducting routine eye examinations.

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