AI can help detect Parkinson’s years before symptoms show

22 Aug 2023

Image: © Анна Ковальчук/

By studying one of the largest datasets of eye scans, a UCL team has identified early markers that indicate Parkinson’s around seven years before diagnosis.

A new study has found that using artificial intelligence to analyse eye scans can help doctors detect Parkinson’s disease in patients several years before they show any symptoms.

While eye scans have been used before to detect various neurodegenerative diseases – an emerging field known as oculomics – the latest research is the largest of its kind that deploys AI to analyse retinal scans and detect Parkinson’s disease.

The markers were identified by a research team in University College London (UCL) and Moorfields Eye Hospital. It is the first time anyone has shown these findings several years begore diagnosis. Their findings were published in the journal Neurology yesterday (21 August).

Two large datasets – AlzEye and the wider UK Biobank – were analysed to enable the team identify these “subtle” markers, even though Parkinson’s has a relatively low prevalence of 0.1-0.2pc in the global population.

Similar methods have been used before to detect other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and, most recently, schizophrenia. A scan of the retina is one of the only non-intrusive ways to view layers of cells below the skin’s surface.

Using AI and machine learning means the analysis and detection from these optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans takes a fraction of the time a human would take.

“I continue to be amazed by what we can discover through eye scans,” said lead author Dr Siegfried Wagner of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital.

“While we are not yet ready to predict whether an individual will develop Parkinson’s, we hope that this method could soon become a pre-screening tool for people at risk of disease,” added Wagner, who is also principal investigator of several other AlzEye studies.

“Finding signs of a number of diseases before symptoms emerge means that, in the future, people could have the time to make lifestyle changes to prevent some conditions arising, and clinicians could delay the onset and impact of life-changing neurodegenerative disorders.”

Consultant ophthalmologist and medical director at Moorfields’ Eye Hospital Dr Louisa Wickham, said that increasing imaging across a wider population will have a “huge impact” on public health in the future, and will eventually lead to predictive analysis.

“OCT scans are more scalable, non-invasive, lower cost and quicker than brain scans for this purpose.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic