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A new study reveals that the width of the blood vessels in the retina, located at the back of the eye, may indicate brain health years before the onset of any mental health disorders according to a new study. Psychological scientist Idan Shalev of Duke University and colleagues wondered whether intelligence might serve as a marker indicating the health of the brain, and specifically the health of the system of blood vessels that provides oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Shalev and colleagues used digital retinal imaging, a relatively new and non-invasive method, to gain a window onto vascular conditions in the brain by looking at the small blood vessels of the retina, located at the back of the eye. Retinal blood vessels share similar size, structure, and function with blood vessels in the brain and can provide a way of examining brain health in living humans.
The researchers examined data from participants taking part in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal investigation of health and behaviour in over 1000 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Having wider retinal venules was linked with lower IQ scores at age 38, even after the researchers accounted for various health, lifestyle, and environmental risk factors that might have played a role.
Individuals who had wider retinal venules showed evidence of general cognitive deficits, with lower scores on numerous measures of neuro-psychological functioning, including verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and executive function.
Surprisingly, the data revealed that people who had wider venules at age 38 also had lower IQ in childhood, a full 25 years earlier.
'It's remarkable that venular caliber in the eye is related, however modestly, to mental test scores of individuals in their 30s, and even to IQ scores in childhood,' the researchers said.
The findings suggest that the processes linking vascular health and cognitive functioning begin much earlier than previously assumed, years before the onset of dementia and other age-related declines in brain functioning.
'Increasing knowledge about retinal vessels may enable scientists to develop better diagnosis and treatments to increase the levels of oxygen into the brain and by that, to prevent age-related worsening of cognitive abilities,' researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.
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