They used Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), a special scanning method already used by optometrists. It is a fast, accurate method that does not cause any discomfort.
OCT uses light beams to create a 3D scan of the retina. This can reveal details that are important for diagnosing a disease.
The researchers believe that this eye scan will make it much easier, faster and safer in the future to determine whether someone has kidney disease and how far the condition has progressed.
Symptoms do not occur
Kidney disease is a growing problem because it can arise in the wake of common health problems such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
OCT scans can detect kidney disease early, which is an important advantage. Kidney disease often worsens in the early stages without you noticing, and with current methods the disease may not be discovered until half of the kidney function has been lost.
“We hope that our study, which shows that the eye provides useful insight into kidney function, can help diagnose more kidney diseases at an early stage – allowing treatment to begin before the disease gets worse,” said Neeraj Dhaun, professor of nephrology at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Center for Cardiovascular Science.
The reason the eye is so important for diagnosing kidney disease is that it is the only place in the body where we can observe the flow in the smallest blood vessels, the microvascular circulation. This process is often affected by kidney disease.
Retinal thickness as a measure
The OCT scan uses beams that create a cross-section of the retina within a few minutes. Photos of them make it possible to find important details that indicate kidney disease.
The Scottish researchers analyzed OCT images of 204 patients with different stages of kidney disease. Some patients were on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. The researchers compared OCT photos of the kidney patients with similar photos of 86 healthy subjects.
They could clearly see that the kidney patients had thinner retinas than the control group, which is probably due to reduced microcirculation.
Much more pleasant for the patient
The researchers also found that the retinas of kidney patients became increasingly thinner as their kidney function declined. This means that the thickness of the retina can be used as a measure of the stage of the disease.
The change turned out to be reversible: the thickness of the retina increased again when kidney function recovered. This happened especially quickly in people who had undergone a kidney transplant.
The researchers hope that their findings can be used to detect kidney disease early and develop new medicines. An advantage here is that OCT scans of changes in the retina can show whether the treatment is working.
The diagnostic method with OCT is also much more pleasant for the patient.
Kidney patients often have to undergo invasive procedures to monitor their kidney disease, while they are already receiving harsh treatments such as kidney dialysis.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.
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