The true power of this kind of technological solution is that it could flag risk with a fast, cheap and noninvasive test. Picture: Pexels.
The true power of this kind of technological solution is that it could flag risk with a fast, cheap and noninvasive test. Picture: Pexels.
A scan of the back of the human eye (left), and how Google's algorithm sees it. The green highlights are the parts the algorithm found most helpful in predicting blood pressure. Picture: UK Biobank/Google.
A scan of the back of the human eye (left), and how Google's algorithm sees it. The green highlights are the parts the algorithm found most helpful in predicting blood pressure. Picture: UK Biobank/Google.

By looking at the human eye, Google's algorithms were able to predict whether someone had high blood pressure or was at risk of a heart attack or stroke, Google researchers said Monday, opening a new opportunity for artificial intelligence in the vast and lucrative global health industry.

The algorithms didn't outperform existing medical approaches such as blood tests, according to a study of the finding published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The work needs to be validated and repeated on more people before it gains broader acceptance, several outside physicians said.

But the new approach could build on doctors' current abilities by providing a tool that people could one day use to quickly and easily screen themselves for health risks that can contribute to heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.

"This may be a rapid way for people to screen for risk," Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale University who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email. 

"Diagnosis is about to get turbo-charged by technology. And one avenue is to empower people with rapid ways to get useful information about their health."

The true power of this kind of technological solution is that it could flag risk with a fast, cheap and noninvasive test that could be administered in a range of settings, letting people know if they should come in for follow-up.

The research, one of an increasing number of conceptual health-technology studies, was conducted by Google and Verily Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Google's parent Alphabet.

A scan of the back of the human eye (left), and how Google's algorithm sees it. The green highlights are the parts the algorithm found most helpful in predicting blood pressure. Picture: UK Biobank/Google.


Krumholz, however, cautioned that an eye scan isn't ready to replace more conventional approaches. 

Maulik Majmudar, associate director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, called the model "impressive" but noted that the results show how tough it is to make significant improvements in cardiovascular risk prediction. Age and gender are powerful predictors of risk, without the need for any additional testing.

Apple late last year launched a heart study tied to its Apple Watch to see if it could detect and alert people to irregular heart rhythms that could be a sign of atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke.