As a college student, Mark Zuckerberg likely never imagined that the simple website he set up to send messages to his classmates would have a global impact on our social interactions and, if the speculation about electoral shenanigans is true, political ones as well. He now finds himself swimming in uncharted waters. Such is the chaotic, ever-evolving life of an innovator. Optometry parallels the tech world in that regard. The profession has been both the source and subject of radical changes wrought by innovation, not all of them welcome.
A few years ago, when studies began to show that Alzheimer’s disease could be detected by an eye exam, optometrists were intrigued, excited and apprehensive. Did this mean they might one day be responsible for detecting this insidious disease? The prospect of bearing that burden gave many ODs pause.
Will anxious family members of your elderly patients be looking to you for an early diagnosis that could be life-changing? In a word: maybe.
As we report in this month’s news section (see page 6), the research and clinical tools to screen for Alzheimer’s through the eye are developing with alacrity. A recent study found that fundus autofluorescence scans can pick up amyloid plaques in the retina that could be a surrogate of corresponding plaques in the brain. Other research efforts have linked Parkinson’s disease to ocular changes as well. Should these correlations be validated by larger studies, optometrists will soon find themselves in the neurology business, like it or not.
It’s important to recognize that the optic nerve is the “front of the brain,” says American Academy of Optometry President Joseph Shovlin, OD. “What we image there is going to give us valuable information—at least someday—about how the brain is doing.” Some feel it already does, Dr. Shovlin notes, as OCT scans can already detect multiple sclerosis. “In addition, keep in mind all primary retinal disease has secondary optic nerve insult, and the converse is true: all primary optic nerve disease has secondary retinal findings.” Efforts to untangle the connections among the retina, optic nerve and central nervous system are at the forefront of today’s ophthalmic research.
Those of you attending the Academy meeting will have the chance to hear about such cutting-edge work from Robert Sergott, MD, director of the neuro-ophthalmology service at Wills Eye Hospital in the meeting’s plenary session. It should prove both fascinating and a bit intimidating.
Either way, expect a glimpse of optometry’s future. Alzheimer’s “is becoming so prevalent that it can’t be ignored,” Dr. Shovlin says. “Fortunately for us, the information gleaned is easily accessed through the eye.” That easy accessibility seems destined to give ODs an important new responsibility, but also the peace of mind to take it on. “No other part of the body can be easily examined like the eye without certain advanced, even invasive techniques,” he says.
Facebook quickly outgrew its original mandate. Optometry continually does the same. As Mr. Zuckerberg would say, time for a status update.