We are gradually beginning to understand that beyond simply allowing us to view the outside world, the human eye also has tremendous potential to help show the outside world what is happening inside the brain and body.
Aside from eye-related disorders such as cataracts or glaucoma, changes in eye appearance have been shown to indicate issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some research has even shown that patterns in the iris can actually provide personality indications such as that someone is warm and trusting or neurotic and impulsive.
Now, a new study shows that eye problems, such as retinal changes and the widening of small blood vessels may also serve as early indications of the risk and progression of schizophrenia.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder which affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Some people with schizophrenia interpret reality differently. They may have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary; manifested in ways such as hearing voices or believing that others can read their mind or are planning to harm them.
People with schizophrenia may appear withdrawn or agitated, and may have difficulty expressing ordinary emotions in social settings.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately one percent of the global population suffers from schizophrenia and while it exists in different degrees of severity, understanding the signs and symptoms of the disease is necessary for its proper diagnosis and treatment.
Connections Between Vision Science and Schizophrenia
Vision science is an incredibly complicated inter-disciplinary study. It brings together cognitive psychology, neuroscience, neuropsychology and statistics among others, in an attempt to understand how activation in the human eye transforms into visual experiences.
Visual processing is important to understand because the images the brain creates are based on specific things the eyes can see. Unlike other types of mental processing which are much more abstract, changes in visual processing can be studied directly and can show how different brains respond to the same images in order to better understand what is taking place mentally for those with schizophrenia. These symptoms can be observed in reverse as well.
In fact there are well-documented examples of the association between vision problems and schizophrenia. Patients with schizophrenia have abnormalities in the language and nature of their eye movements.
The journal Schizophrenia Research: Cognition, published a study in 2011 which showed that many people with schizophrenia had distortions in their motion perception, meaning they had difficulty in identifying the difference in speed between two objects.
Because the tissue that makes up our retinas comes from the same tissue as the brain, changes in the retina may be similar to, or even mirror, changes taking place in the brain. The difficulty lies in the fact that no clear evidence exists as to whether these visual processing difficulties originate in the brain or in the eye.
To better understand this, researchers at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai and Rutgers University examined roughly 170 people and grouped them into multiple categories which compared changes in the retina to changes in other parts of the eyes. The study also categorized changes related to dopamine in the brain as opposed to other neurotransmitters in order to correlate the changes in the eyes directly to mental changes.
One interesting correlation the study discovered was that the researchers were unable to find any reports of schizophrenia occurring in people who were born blind. Whereas among children not born blind, retinal changes may imply a potential disease risk. This seems to suggest that congenital blindness (or being born blind) may at least partially, if not completely, protect someone from developing schizophrenia.
Why This is Important
Because changes in the retina potentially mirror changes taking place within the brain, it is possible to identify and diagnose schizophrenia by examining one’s eyes.
In another separate study published in the Biological Psychology Journal, researchers were able to develop an almost 100 percent accuracy rate in detecting schizophrenics by looking at their gaze. People with schizophrenia had trouble following a slow moving object with their eyes. Rather than following the object smoothly, they tended to fall behind the object and then catch up again through rapid movement.
This is important because studies like this could rapidly increase the identification speed and detection of schizophrenia and may even be able to provide a better understanding of how to handle the disease.
Also because detecting minor retinal changes in children may imply an increased risk of schizophrenia later in life, individuals can be better prepared for any slight suggestion of symptom development.
Problems Moving Forward
Knowing the potential importance of this information, the issue is that the relationship between vision and schizophrenia is still incredibly under-examined. Seeing that visual distortions exist in over half of adult patients with schizophrenia, more information needs to be gathered to better understand the disease; especially it’s early identification and treatment.
For example, along with studies on visual distortions by tracking objects, most of the important contributions have been performed by utilizing primitive forms of visual simulation such as dots, lines and geometric shapes. Therefore there may be limitations in understanding how three-dimensional objects are perceived and attended to mentally.
Overall however, incorporating vision science methods in schizophrenia research has led to incredible benefits in understanding elements of the disease. Considering studies of the retina and other eye structures are only just beginning, hopefully further research will lead to even greater knowledge of the visual manifestations of schizophrenia.
While practicing eye-specific exercises or nutrition have not been linked to the prevention of schizophrenia, it is important to understand the correlation that both mental and physical diseases have on one’s eye health and appearance. Knowing that physical and mental issues can be seen and identified through eye examinations only demonstrates that maintaining an awareness of any eye-related issue or abnormality is crucial and should be an integral part of one’s overall health.
These studies on the relationship between vision and schizophrenia only further validate the concept that our eyes are one of the greatest indications of our overall health and well-being and should be cared for as such.