Breakthrough study finds Parkinson’s patients have thinner retinas

A breakthrough study has revealed Parkinson’s patients have thinner retinas.

According to the first research of its kind, the retinas of those with the movement disorder measure at 0.035mm compared to 0.037mm in non patients.  

The study also found patients with Parkinson’s have thin retinas because the brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine die. 

Dopamine is responsible for coordinating movement. It also causes retinas to change shape in response to the light hitting them.

Study author Dr Jee-Young Lee, from Seoul National University, said: ‘Our study is the first to show a link between the thinning of the retina and a known sign of the progression of the disease – the loss of brain cells that produce dopamine.

‘These discoveries may mean neurologists may eventually be able to use a simple eye scan to detect Parkinson’s disease in its earliest stages, before problems with movement begin.’

Parkinson’s affects around one in every 350 adults in the UK. Approximately one million suffer in the US. 

A breakthrough study suggests Parkinson's patients have thinner retinas (stock)

A breakthrough study suggests Parkinson’s patients have thinner retinas (stock)

How the research was carried out  

The researchers analysed 49 people with an average age of 69 who were diagnosed with Parkinson’s around two years ago but had not started medication.

These patients were compared to 54 people without the movement disorder. 

All of the participants had an eye exam that measured the thickness of their retinas.

Of those with Parkinson’s, 28 underwent brain scans to measure the amount of dopamine in their brains. Dopamine is responsible for coordinating movement. The cells that produce this chemical die in Parkinson’s sufferers.


Parkinson’s disease affects one in 500 people, and around 127,000 people in the UK live with the condition.

Figures also suggest one million Americans also suffer.

It causes muscle stiffness, slowness of movement, tremors, sleep disturbance, chronic fatigue, an impaired quality of life and can lead to severe disability.

It is a progressive neurological condition that destroys cells in the part of the brain that controls movement.

Sufferers are known to have diminished supplies of dopamine because nerve cells that make it have died.

There is currently no cure and no way of stopping the progression of the disease, but hundreds of scientific trials are underway to try and change that.  

The disease claimed the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 2016.

Parkinson's affects one in every 350 adults in the UK and one million suffer in the US (stock)

Parkinson’s affects one in every 350 adults in the UK and one million suffer in the US (stock)

‘Retina scans may allow earlier treatment of Parkinson’s’

Results, published in the journal Neurology, suggest that of the retina’s five layers, two are thinner in Parkinson’s patients. 

Thinning of the retina also corresponds with a loss of brain cells that produce dopamine.

Dr Lee said: ‘Larger studies are needed to confirm our findings and to determine just why retina thinning and the loss of dopamine-producing cells are linked.

‘If confirmed, retina scans may not only allow earlier treatment of Parkinson’s disease but more precise monitoring of treatments that could slow progression of the disease as well.’ 

Future studies should measure more of the retina as well as how its thickness changes over time, the scientists add. 

Could Parkinson’s be treated by light?

This comes after research released last June suggested Parkinson’s could treated by light.

Drugs that are activated by bright rays may significantly improve tremors in patients, a study by the University of Barcelona found.

It is unclear how much such medication would cost or when it may be available.

Light-activated drugs enable medication to be delivered to specific areas of the brain, which minimises side effects. They also allow greater control over when drugs are given, which helps ensure patients properly respond to them.

Although early days, the researchers envision such drugs being used alongside light-generating patches that patients can control from their smartphones. 

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