Discovery detects early-warning signs of diabetic retinopathy, a major cause of vision loss in the U.S.

microscopic view of a diseased eye

A retinal capillary with multiple loops. The blood cannot travel directly to nourish the retinal cells. Photo by the Burns Lab

Researchers at the IU School of Optometry designed a technique that allows them to see microscopic changes to the eye — what they described as ‘early-warning signs of the potential loss of sight associated with diabetes.”

This discovery could have far-reaching implications for the diagnosis and treatment of diabetic retinopathy, potentially impacting the care of over 25 million Americans.

“We had not expected to see such striking changes to the retinas at such early stages,” said Ann Elsner, professor and associate dean in the School of Optometry and lead author of the study. “We set out to study the early signs, in volunteer research subjects whose eyes were not thought to have very advanced disease. There was damage spread widely across the retina, including changes to blood vessels that were not thought to occur until the more advanced disease states.”

Diabetes has long been known to damage the retina, the irreplaceable network of nerve cells that capture light and give the first signal in the process of seeing. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. for people under the age of 75.

Because their findings are new, it isn’t known whether improved control of blood sugar or a change in medications might stop or even reverse the damage. In our news release, they (Elsner and co-author Stephen Burns, also a professor and associate dean at the school) say further research can help determine who has the most severe damage and whether the changes can be reversed.

Read the full release

Read the journal article, published in Biomedical Optics Express.

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