Eyes are a “window to the soul,” but what about a window to the brain?
Experts suggest that mental health can be closely linked to eye health, and research also shows how eyes can be used to detect mental health issues.
Dr. Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist and president of the Ocular Nutrition Society, said in an email that there is one noticeable link between the eyes and brain. Research shows that carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin, are shared over the blood-brain barrier and end up accumulating in the brain.
Carotenoids are natural pigments found in plants, and the two mentioned above are considered to be good for eye health.
He said that lutein and zeaxanthin can gather in the central part of the retina, which is where we get our vision from. These carotenoids play a major role in maintaining 20/20 vision, and people with macular degeneration generally have lower amounts of both caotenoids in their retinas.
“[Macular degeneration] doesn't cause ‘total’ blindness, but people can't see what they’re looking directly at; for example grandparents can't see their grandchildren's faces,” Anshel said. “Thus, this disease is more ‘frustrating’ than it is ‘blinding.’ This, of course, can lead to mental anguish and other related psychological issues.”
Two different studies also show just how eyes can be a window into mental health. A 2003 study at the University of Illinois at Chicago demonstrated that eye movements can be used to detect mental illnesses, since irregular eye movements can suggest abnormal functioning in the brain.
Researchers stated that people with schizophrenia tend to have problems following slow-moving objects with their eyes.
University of Aberdeen also has a similar research project where they devised an eye test to detect mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, according to the university’s website.
“It has been known for over a hundred years that individuals with psychotic symptoms are unable to smoothly track slowly moving objects with their eyes,” Dr. Philip Benson, a senior lecturer at the university’s School of Psychology who was involved in developing the test, said in a press release.
“Their gaze tends to lag behind the object and then catch up with it by making rapid skips called saccades.”
The test is thought to be more than 95 percent accurate in diagnosing mental illness within 30 minutes, according to the university’s website. The test might be able to detect early signs of mental illness as well.
The University of Aberdeen’s research actually won an award in the 2013 Converge Challenge Awards, which is a contest in Scotland that helps people bring their business ideas to fruition.
Dr. Steven Shanbom, an ophthalmologist in Berkley, Michigan, said in an email that he’s noticed that different eye conditions can impact mental health.
“I have definitely seen situations where patients with advanced cataracts will withdraw into depression,” Shanbom said. “I also think that forms of dementia are made worse when a patient's vision is suffering.”
Even dry eye syndrome can alter mood for the worse.
“Somebody with severe dry eyes can experience so much discomfort that they are unable to read or unable to drive,” Shanbom said. “This inability to do one's daily activities will certainly affect mood.”
However, many treatment options are available for eye conditions, and mental health is certainly improved with proper treatment.
One common ailment that can be linked to eye problems is a headache. Some headaches lead to eye pain, but in special cases eye problems can lead to headaches.
For example, eye strain can lead to headaches and eye discomfort, according to an article by Deborah Friedman for the American Headache Society Committee for Headache Education, or ACHE.
“Eyestrain is caused by improper focusing (nearsighted, farsighted or astigmatism) or when the two eyes are not properly aligned,” she said.
If a headache is caused by eyestrain, it should start after you’ve been using your eyes for a longer period of time. For example, if you sit at a computer at work all day and notice a headache after a few hours, it could be a sign that your eyes are straining.
Proper glasses can help treat this problem, Friedman said. However, many headaches are tension headaches that are not related to eye problems.
Some conditions that can be associated with eye problems and headaches include degenerative diseases of the cornea, dry eyes, eye inflammation, glaucoma and optic nerve conditions, she said.
ScienceDaily. Eye Movement Studies to Help Diagnose Mental Illness. Web. June 2, 2014.
The University of Aberdeen. Mental health ‘eye test’ breakthrough wins top entrepreneurial award. Web. June 2, 2014.
American Headache Society Committee on Headache Education (ACHE). Friedman, Deborah. Do I Need to Have My Eyes Checked If My Head Hurts? Web. June 2, 2014.
Anshel, Jeffrey. Email interview. June 2, 2014.
Shanbom, Steven. Email interview. June 2, 2014.
Reviewed June 3, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith