Maybe the Eyes really are the Window to the Soul

Jon Radwan 2000

Depression is a common condition – about 10% of adults are diagnosed with a depressive illness at some point in their lives – and a tough one to treat.  The problem is that the symptoms are based on subjective feelings, so a lot of people think that it’s not a “real” medical problem.  I can measure your blood sugar and tell you if you have diabetes; I can measure your cholesterol and tell you if you’re at risk of having a heart attack; but how do I measure any of the following?

  • mood changes
  • withdrawal from friends
  • decreased interest in work, school, or other activities previously enjoyed
  • feeling worthless, irritable, hopeless, or tired
  • loss of concentration, sleep or appetite
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Thoughts about dying or suicide attempts

Who doesn’t feel one or more of those things every now and then?  Is everyone depressed?  Can some people just not handle it?  Besides someone telling you that these feelings are a problem, is there any way to know that how they feel is any different or worse than how you feel?

Well someday it might be as easy as looking them in the eye…

Researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany found that depressed people weren’t able to see the contrast between black and white as well as non-depressed people by measuring the electrical activity in their retinas.  They used a device called an electroretinogram – basically, they did a tiny little EKG on their eyes. 

Now it’s way too early to tell if this technology will actually provide a meaningful way to diagnose and monitor depression – we’re not going to have any kind of Star Trek retina scanner depress-o-meter at the student health center any time soon.  But if your roommate keeps telling you that “everything just looks blah around here,” it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask how things are going. 

Roger Miller, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University