A five-minute eye scan using optical coherence tomography (OCT) to scan nerves deep in the back of the eye, can be used to accurately determine brain damage in people with the autoimmune disorder multiple sclerosis (MS). It can also be used to predict how quickly the disease is progressing, say researchers in two studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore.

Calabresi and colleagues applied special software they co-developed to assess previously immeasurable layers of the light-sensitive retinal tissue. The scan uses no harmful radiation and is one-tenth the cost of an MRI. The software will soon be widely available commercially.

“The eye is the window into the brain and by measuring how healthy the eye is, we can determine how healthy the rest of the brain is,” says Peter A. Calabresi, MD, a professor of neurology and leader of the two studies. “We should be using this new quantitative tool to learn more about disease progression, including nerve damage and brain atrophy.”

The more inflammation and swelling they found in the retinas of the MS patients, the more inflammation showed up in their brain MRIs. The correlation, they said, affirmed the retinal scans’ value. Having this information available could allow physicians to tell how far the disease has progressed, and to better advise patients about how to proceed with their care.