Purpose: To study the individual course of retinal changes caused by healthy aging using deep learning. Design: Retrospective analysis of a large data set of retinal OCT images. Participants: A total of 85 709 adults between the age of 40 and 75 years of whom OCT images were acquired in the scope of the UK Biobank population study. Methods: We created a counterfactual generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of neural network that learns from cross-sectional, retrospective data. It then synthesizes high-resolution counterfactual OCT images and longitudinal time series. These counterfactuals allow visualization and analysis of hypothetical scenarios in which certain characteristics of the imaged subject, such as age or sex, are altered, whereas other attributes, crucially the subject's identity and image acquisition settings, remain fixed. Main Outcome Measures: Using our counterfactual GAN, we investigated subject-specific changes in the retinal layer structure as a function of age and sex. In particular, we measured changes in the retinal nerve fiber layer (RNFL), combined ganglion cell layer plus inner plexiform layer (GCIPL), inner nuclear layer to the inner boundary of the retinal pigment epithelium (INL-RPE), and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Results: Our counterfactual GAN is able to smoothly visualize the individual course of retinal aging. Across all counterfactual images, the RNFL, GCIPL, INL-RPE, and RPE changed by −0.1 μm ± 0.1 μm, −0.5 μm ± 0.2 μm, −0.2 μm ± 0.1 μm, and 0.1 μm ± 0.1 μm, respectively, per decade of age. These results agree well with previous studies based on the same cohort from the UK Biobank population study. Beyond population-wide average measures, our counterfactual GAN allows us to explore whether the retinal layers of a given eye will increase in thickness, decrease in thickness, or stagnate as a subject ages. Conclusion: This study demonstrates how counterfactual GANs can aid research into retinal aging by generating high-resolution, high-fidelity OCT images, and longitudinal time series. Ultimately, we envision that they will enable clinical experts to derive and explore hypotheses for potential imaging biomarkers for healthy and pathologic aging that can be refined and tested in prospective clinical trials. Financial Disclosure(s): Proprietary or commercial disclosure may be found after the references.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100294
JournalOphthalmology Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • Aging
  • Biomarker discovery
  • Deep learning
  • Machine learning
  • Retina


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