Can the Eyes Predict Bipolar Disorder?

Could doctors see bipolar disorder in your eyes?
Could doctors see bipolar disorder in your eyes?. Vanimann/Morguefile

You have bipolar disorder, and so did your mother and her father, plus other relatives. You're worried about whether your child will inherit bipolar disorder. Will a specialized eye exam someday be able to help predict whether your child will develop BP? A 2010 study reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry suggests that this may be possible.

At the back of the eye is the retina, which contains two types of light sensors called rods and cones.

Rods see black and white and are important for sight in low light conditions and for peripheral vision. Cones see color. Although researchers already knew that retinal anomalies were detected in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the effects of the illness and use of medication for it made those findings no good for research purposes.

In this study, researchers examined the retinas of healthy young adults who were at high risk for developing BP or schizophrenia and compared them with a control group whose families did not have a history of those illnesses. They found that in the high-risk group, the ability of light to activate the rods was significantly reduced. There was no difference in the cones' responses between the two groups.

The identification of a possible new biomarker for BP is exciting. The study's authors concluded that this particular response of the retina's rods may be an "early and specific biomarker of risk" that may help in future genetic testing and prevention research.

Does a diminished response of the rods lead to perceptual problems in BP and schizophrenia? It's possible. DNA quoted Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, as saying, "It is important to appreciate that for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as for colour-blindness or selective hearing loss, people who appear to perceive the world normally may actually have subtle but important problems with perception, which may contribute to other adaptive impairments."

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