Currently, in order to make a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a doctor must assess a patient's reported symptoms … which can be somewhat subjective. According to a recent study, however, an existing optometrist's tool may be able to do the job quickly and objectively.

Led by Prof. Steven Silverstein, a Rutgers University team performed eye exams on a total of 50 participants, half of whom were already known to have schizophrenia, and half of whom had no diagnosed psychiatric disorder. To perform the exams, the scientists used LKC Technologies' RETeval, a handheld device that's already utilized by optometrists to inspect patients' retinas.

Each participant closed one eye while pressing the other against the RETeval, which proceeded to emit 10 to 20 flashes of white or colored light of various intensities. An attached electrode, placed on the skin beneath the eye, measured the electrical response of the retinal cells.

This procedure was carried out both under normal lighting, and after the person had been sitting in the dark for 10 minutes, in order to assess different types of cells. The part of the exam involving application of the device only took about two minutes to perform – a potentially important consideration, when working with people suffering from severe psychiatric symptoms.

Supporting previous research, it was found that the RETeval recorded significantly less electrical activity in the retinas of the schizophrenic participants, as compared to their non-schizophrenic counterparts.

"While the portable device clearly distinguished people with schizophrenia from those without a psychiatric diagnosis, it's too soon to call this a diagnostic tool," says doctoral student Docia Demmin, lead author of a paper on the study. "However, since every prior study has found that people with schizophrenia exhibit reduced retinal wave forms and slowed retinal responses, our research shows that we closing in on an accurate test that is faster, less invasive, inexpensive and more accessible to patients."

The paper was recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

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