Everyone agrees on the importance of regular eye exams. After all they are good for vision correction, eye disease prevention and vision maintenance when a person has a condition like glaucoma. Now you can add improving gut health and preventing heart attacks by way of an eye exam.
Gut Health via the Eyes
Chronic noninfectious uveitis is an eye inflammation that can lead to blindness, if not treated. Current treatments include corticosteroids that have serious side effects such as cataracts and glaucoma. Phoebe Lin, MD, PhD, an associate professor of ophthalmology in Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Medicine is studying how the gut-eye link leads to uveitis and is working on potential treatments for it.
Research from her lab established the gut-eye link in animal models and studies in mice showed that the severity of inflammation from uveitis is in part related to the reduction of Treg cells in the gut. These cells are regulatory T cells that help to prevent inflammation. Lin’s lab found that giving mice a dose of short-chain fatty acids or oral antibiotics can both enhance the number of Treg cells and alter intestinal permeability and structure. These were all associated with decreased eye inflammation. This initial research led to a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to support her work in learning how the intestinal microbes and the immune system can be stabilized to better treat uveitis.
AI Identifying Who Has a High Risk of Having a Heart Attack
It has long been known that the blood vessels in the retina can indicate problems with the heart. What if there was a way to take this information and use it to predict the likelihood of a person having a heart attack. Research at the University of Leeds, in the UK, used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify those who were likely to have a heart attack.
A set of rules, also known as algorithms, called deep learning were used to train an AI system to read retinal scans in order to identify persons who, in the course of a year, would have a heart attack. The AI system studied retinal and cardiac scans from over 5000 people and it recognized the link between the problems with blood vessels in the retina and changes in a person’s heart.
Once the patterns were learned, the system could estimate the size and pumping efficiency of the heart’s left ventricle, based on the retinal scans. (An enlarged ventricle is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.) Combined with demographic data about the patient, the AI system was able to make a prediction about the risk of a heart attack over the next 12 month. It had an accuracy of between 70 and 80 percent.
Currently, this kind of information is available if a person has an echocardiograph or has MRI imaging of the heart. These tests are expensive and can only be done in a hospital. In comparison, retinal scans are much cheaper and are done in optometry practices. So, screening for heart disease via AI opens the possibility of finding more people at risk for a heart attack, so that they could be referred to a cardiologist.
Again, research shows both the importance of an eye exam and how eye health is reflective of overall health.