New Eye Test Could Spot Glaucoma and Prevent Blindness in Millions

Glaucoma eye
Eradicated optic nerve in advanced glaucoma Snoop-Wikicommons

A new eye test could prevent glaucoma, the biggest cause of irreversible blindness, by spotting symptoms before loss of sight begins.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) have developed an eye exam that could detect individual nerve cell death at the back of the eye a decade before symptoms present themselves.

Glaucoma affects 16 million people worldwide, many of whom have lost a third of their vision before they start treatment. The disease causes changes to the pressure inside the eye which kills the retina's nerve cells.

Early detection would allow doctors to start treatment before the patient begins to go blind. The new test uses a fluorescent dye that sticks to cells that are about to die. White fluorescent dots on the retina would reveal whether the patient has early-onset glaucoma.

Glaucoma eye
Eye with acute angle-closure glaucoma, a sudden elevation in intra-ocular pressure that occurs when the iris blocks the eye's drainage channel. Jonathan-Trobe-Wikicommons

The test could also diagnose early-onset degenerative neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

The exam is still in its first trial phase and has so far only been tested on 16 people, but the initial results are promising, according to the study published in the medical journal Brain.

"For the first time, we have been able to show individual cell death and detect the earliest signs of glaucoma. While we cannot cure the disease, our test means treatment can start before symptoms begin," lead researcher Professor Francesca Cordeiro of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology said in a release published alongside the study.

Bethan Hughes, a spokesperson for the medical charity Wellcome Trust which funded the research, said: "This innovation has the potential to transform lives for those who suffer loss of sight through glaucoma, and offers hope of a breakthrough in early diagnosis of other neurodegenerative diseases."