Researchers Detect Early Changes In Diabetic Patients’ Eyes

IU researchers have developed a way to detect extremely early signs of eyesight loss in diabetic patients using a high-powered microscope.

Indiana University researchers can now detect minute changes in diabetic patients’ retinas. The method they’ve developed could help patients catch vision problems early so they can prevent eyesight loss.

Here’s how it works:

When seen through an extremely strong magnifying glass, a normal retina looks like this:

normal blood vessels

Photo: Stephen Burns

A microscopic photo of a person's retina shows what the eye's blood vessels look like in a person with normal eyesight.

But after testing diabetes patients, IU researchers found some of their eyes looked like this:

diabetic eyes

Photo: Stephen Burns

A microscopic photo of a diabetic patient's retina shows distorted blood vessels.

See that bulge the black arrow is pointing to? That is a swollen blood vessel.

In people with diabetes those blood vessels can become distorted shapes (white arrows) and start leaking fluids. That then makes the retina swell and can blur vision.

“Hopefully we’re seeing these changes before we ever get to that state,” says IU optometry professor Stephen Burns, one of the main researchers. “That’s the goal of the research is to understand can we can see and identify problems before they become visually very significant.”

To see the eye at this microscopic level, Burns used a special machine he built.

If created for commercial use it could help people know whether they need to take additional medications or change their eating habits.

“We have people who have come in who are relatively young, who have had relatively short histories of diabetes, who clinically, with standard clinical tools, look absolutely fine, and we can show them that they are far from absolutely fine, that there are already microvascular changes and at least we think they sometimes they seem to be impressed and hopefully will change their behavior patterns,” says Thomas Gast, an ophthalmologist at the IU School of Optometry who is also one of the researchers.

The researchers say knowing how diabetes affect someone’s eyesight could also tell a doctor which and how many medications the patient should be taking.

Being able to being able to detect such subtle changes could also improve clinical trials, because companies would not have to wait years to discover if a drug is working, and in the long-run, that could help reduce health care costs.

A study on the researchers’ findings was published last week in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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