Retina Exams Might Lead to Early Cerebral Malaria Diagnoses

January 15, 2009
Keli Rising

Of the one million deaths caused by malaria each year, most occur "as a result of cerebral malaria, where red blood cells infected by malaria parasites build up into the brain, leading to coma and convulsions and, if not treated swiftly, death."

Of the one million deaths caused by malaria each year, most occur “as a result of cerebral malaria, where red blood cells infected by malaria parasites build up into the brain, leading to coma and convulsions and, if not treated swiftly, death.”

Earlier this week, the results from a study funded by the Wellcome Trust and Fight for Sight, which evaluated the relationship between retinas and cerebral malaria were published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. The researchers found that “looking at the retina in the eyes of patients with cerebral malaria has provided scientists with a vital insight into why malaria infection in the brain is so deadly.”

Previous research has shown that changes in the retina is accompanied with cerebral malaria (malarial retinopathy), and because the retina “can be considered as an extension of the central nervous system, it has been used previously as a ‘window into the brain,’ allowing for swifter diagnosis of cerebral malaria.”

Dr. Nick Beare of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and colleagues using fluorescein angiography—a special dye is injected intravenously and is photographed through blood vessels to the retina—while examining the retinas of 34 children with cerebral malaria. They found that “more than four in five of the children… were found to have impaired blood flow in the blood vessels of their eyes,” which implied that oxygen and nutrients were being disrupted by the parasites.

Beare believes that the new findings “point to new therapeutic measures for treating cerebral malaria more effectively, particularly in comatose children.”

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