Carla La Tella


Breakthrough discovery links deadly disease with "eye twitch"

Breakthrough discovery links deadly disease with "eye twitch"

Victorian researchers have made a ground-breaking discovery in what could help diagnose Australia’s most deadly mental illness.

The Swinburne Anorexia Nervosa Research Group found that anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to as anorexia, can possibly be diagnosed by an eye twitch.

The twitch, paired with anxiety, create a biomarker for the illness.

A biomarker is a measurable characteristic in the body, such as heart rate or blood sugar levels, and none have ever been used to diagnose mental illness before.

Head researcher Dr Andrea Phillipou, who has been researching the illness since 2012, said they initially stumbled on the discovery.

“It was an accidental finding, it happened when I was chatting with a patient while doing eye-tracking and I noticed her eyes were jerking a little bit,” she told

“We had all this data from the tracking and were able to link the eye tracking to a part of the brain.”

As research progressed, Dr Phollipou and her team found that a combination of a type of twitching eye movement called ‘square wave jerks’ together with anxiety is a promising two-element biomarker for anorexia.

These eye jerks were found in people currently with the illness, survivors and sisters of people with anorexia nervosa. The finding in sisters is critical as it shows there is likely a genetic link.

Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness. It also has extrememly low recovery rates with just 50% of patients completely bouncing back.

Alongside the weight-loss, suffers often have heart, organ and brain issues.

Dr Phillipou is hopeful this research will allow early detection of the illness.

“Being able to detect the twitcing eye movement as a screening tool, via an iPad or phone, would be extremely beneficial for GPs or in clinics where there is a suspected diagnosis,” she said.

“We are hoping this research helps identify people at risk, early in the development and we are hopeful that the research plains the biology behind the illness – that which parts of the brain are contributing.”

There are more than one million Australians who suffer from eating disorders.

Of those, 4% have anorexia nervosa and 80% of those are women.

One young Australian woman, Imogen Barnes, documented her recovery from the illness on social media. Her Instagram page, im_powering, has 50,000 followers, she discusses the illness in hope of transforming “pain into power.”

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