Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have applied a commonly used eye test to people with MS and healthy controls to determine whether the health of the nerve cells at the back of the eye could be used to mirror the health of the brain cells.
They studied 164 people with MS and 60 healthy people without MS, using a technique called optical coherence tomography.
This is a relatively simple scan that is radiation-free and is commonly used to assess the health of the retina (the nerve cell layer at the back of the eye) in people with diabetes.
They found a surprisingly strong correlation between the thickness of one of the inner layers of the retina (inner nuclear layer, INL) and disease activity in those with MS.
The thicker the layer at the start of the study, the more likely people with MS were to develop new MRI lesions and relapses during the roughly two years of the study, and the more likely they were to progress in disability.
This is potentially a very important finding for those of us diagnosed with MS. It implies that the retina provides a clear picture of the inflammation going on in the brains of people with MS, so that the more inflammation, with associated increased disease activity, the thicker this layer of the retina.
Potentially, this means that people with MS could be monitored with this relatively simple eye test to see if what they were doing about their illness was making a difference. It could be really useful ultimately for people overcoming MS on this program to monitor how effectively they are controlling the illness, and whether or not, for instance, the approach needs to be more rigorous, or medication might be necessary.
Further studies are required before this can be confirmed and used more widely, but this is highly encouraging in terms of monitoring the illness.