Eye scans reveal extent of MS patient brain damage

Research by epidemiologist Lisanne Balk shows that the extent of brain damage in MS patients can be seen on their eye scans. 

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) damages the nerve cells. This damage causes irreversible disability in patients and the mapping of this process is therefore very important. The more damage there is to the nerve cells in MS patients, the more symptoms they have, such as loss of strength and fatigue.

The eye contains more than one million nerve cells, and can be seen as a "reflection of the brain". With the help of a new technique called optical coherence tomography (OCT), a 3D scan can be made of the optic nerve and other nerve cells in the retina.

Balk compared the eyes of 230 chronically ill MS patients to those of 63 healthy volunteers. All participants received MRI scans of the brain and OCT scans of the retina. With these scans the degree of shrinkage of the retina and the parts of the brain involved in the visual system could be measured.

The research results showed that there is a clear thinning of the retina in the eyes of MS patients, compared with healthy subjects. This thinning, caused by damage to nerve cells, shows an indication to damage to the rest of the brain and was related to physical function.

It also showed that healthy nerve cells can become damaged because they are connected to damaged nerve cells. The damage spreads as a "domino effect" through the central nervous system.

With the OCT it is possible to accurately map the progress of the disease in the patient. The OCT can also measure possible effects of new treatments.