Can a simple test of the eye’s retina be enough to diagnose the presence of neurodevelopmental conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in a child?
Authors of a first-of-its-kind study, published in a recent (June 2022) issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience, say, “Yes,” and retinal expert Deborah Zelinsky OD, founder and research director of the Northbrook, Illinois-based Mind-Eye Institute, agrees.
“The retina is composed of brain tissue, and this latest study adds to the overwhelming evidence that the retina plays a critical role as part of the central nervous system,” says Dr. Zelinsky. “Previous studies have clearly demonstrated the eye is a window to the brain. Spots on the retina are directly matched to brain locations, and retinal abnormalities oftentimes reflect similar abnormalities in the brain.”
Using electroretinograms (ERGs), which measure electrical signals in the retina in response to light, scientists from the University of South Australia and Flinders University in Australia not only found abnormal patterns of retinal signaling activity in patients with ASD and ADHD but were able to distinguish signaling differences between the two disorders.
Children with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD are neurologically wired differently, and these differences can be detected through retinal examination, experts contend.
“Sensory processing problems are common in both ASD and ADHD children, and a measure of sensory function using the ERG may help our understanding of the differences and similarities of these two groups,” the study authors wrote. Retinal evaluation also may offer early warning of ASD and ADHD, which, until now, primarily relied on parental reports, clinical consultants’ analyses, and counselors’ observations for diagnoses. The scientists speculate that retinal signaling could prove helpful in the future for the study and diagnosis of other neurological conditions as well, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease.
In fact, one of the study authors is quoted on the sciencealert.com web site as saying, “By exploring how signals in the retina react to light stimuli, we [as scientists] hope to develop more accurate and earlier diagnoses for different neurodevelopmental conditions.”
The findings are of no surprise to Dr. Zelinsky, who describes the retina as a primary portal through which environmental signals enter the brain in the form of light. “Light is then converted into electrical signals that propagate through neurons and interact with critical brain structures, including the hypothalamus, cerebellum, and brainstem. The implication is stimulation of the retina can impact regulation of basic physical, physiological, and even psychological processes, including posture and motor control.
Autism spectrum disorder often develops by 3 years of age and usually last a lifetime. The condition leads to developmental delays, deficits in communication and emotional skills, behavioral problems, and difficulties with social interaction. The term, autistic spectrum disorder, encompasses myriad conditions, including Asperger syndrome, autism, and pervasive developmental disorder. Scientists believe genetics plays a role in some affected patients, but differences in brain function and structure and other neurological issues are suspected as underlying causes as well.
ADHD and ADD (attention deficit disorder) are neuropsychological conditions characterized by procrastination and disorganization, self-management problems, impaired concepts of time, impulsive decision-making, and lack of focus and attention.
Occasionally, ADHD and autism spectrum disorder can co-exist in the same individual.
The Mind-Eye Institute has long been applying the principles of advanced optometric science to stimulate the retina in order to modify the dynamic relationship between the mind’s visual inputs and the body’s internal responses. Retinal stimulation is achieved through use of highly individualized, therapeutic eyeglasses, filters, and other optometric tools that can vary the amount, intensity and angle of light passing through the retina into the optic nerve.
This understanding of the interconnections between the retina and brain structures has enabled the Mind-Eye Institute to achieve clinical successes in often bringing symptom relief to patients who have sustained traumatic brain injury, concussion, stroke, and neurological disease and in building undeveloped visual processing skills in children with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and other learning deficiencies.
“That a simple retinal eye examination may allow optometrists, ophthalmologists and other health professionals to diagnose ADHD and autism definitively and detect the brain-related differences between the two disorders represents a real breakthrough, especially for parents of affected children,” Dr. Zelinsky says. “This finding potentially provides us a real measurement for disorders that, until now, primarily relied on observations.”