Bid to use AI to help diagnose Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with eye scans

A student looks at matter under a microscope
A student looks at matter under a microscope

Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could be diagnosed from simple eye scans performed by high street opticians thanks to a new NHS artificial intelligence (AI) project.

Newcastle University is working on the project with medics at North East hospitals as part of a national £50 million boost to use AI in a range of health schemes.

Early diagnosis in progressive neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which affect more than one million people in the UK, is important, so speeding up the process could be crucial.

Anya Hurlbert, professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University, is leading the Octahedron project.

She said: “The retina at the back of the eye is basically an outpost of the brain and the only part of the central nervous system we can see directly from the outside.

“We know that in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease the retina is affected.”

Very detailed images of the retina can be captured by optical coherence tomography, or OCT scanning, which is quick and cheap and increasingly available at high street opticians.

Further analysis of these scans will now be developed with the use of AI, to recognise signs of neurological disease.

Prof Hurlbert said: “The aim of the project is to use NHS data to teach computers how to detect early signs of neurological disease via retinal imaging.

“Ultimately, the project will help to catch those at risk earlier, before other symptoms develop.”

Charlotte Allen, from Durham, who lives with Parkinson’s as a patient and carer, said: “I think this study to me is extremely important being able to spot Parkinson’s earlier – that is an amazing thing to think about.”

Speaking about the £50 million AI boost for the NHS, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “AI has huge potential for transforming healthcare and freeing up medical professionals’ time – these awards are just the start of an exciting pipeline of new technology that will identify new ways to diagnose, screen and treat illnesses ranging from dementia and sepsis to antibiotic resistant infections and problems in pregnancy.”

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