Eyes to the Future

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My grandmother suffered in her old age from macular degeneration, a common age-related eye disease that causes the center of your visual field (the macula) to gradually fritz out. As it affected her more and more, the font size in her emails ballooned to cartoonish sizes. She began walking with a cane, and needed a fancy electronic doo-dad to tell her when her cup of tea was full. By the end of her life, she was totally blind.

Watching my grandmother wink out from the world of seeing was tragic; the knowledge of macular degeneration's heredity terrifying. Relatives of those who have suffered from the condition have a fourfold greater risk of degenerating themselves, as compared to those without any hereditary connection. A dire prognosis. My aunt assured me that if I wore sunglasses during all my waking hours, my odds might improve (and here you thought I was trying to look cool).

i-7e5afacd8da55d61b66095d0b5a9fc2e-EyeTelescope.jpgActual website copy: "You should ask your doctor about all the potential risks and benefits of telescope implantation."

Imagine my delight in seeing earlier this month that the FDA has approved the use of a tiny telescope that can be implanted in one eye to help patients suffering from macular degeneration. The company behind this invention, aptly named VisionCare, claims that implanting their miniature telescope into the center of the eye -- and hence allowing images in the central vision field to be projected directly onto healthy areas of the retina -- allows patients "to distinguish and discern images that may have been unrecognizable or difficult to see." In clinical trials, some 75 percent saw their vision improve from severe impairment to only moderate impairment; their blinds spots markedly receded.

The telescopette, 3.6mm diameter, can only be implanted in one eye -- the other one's needed for peripheral vision -- and will necessitate significant rehabilitation after surgery. After all, the patients' brains will suddenly need to process two new and very different images: one "normal," and the other artificially magnified to 2.7 times its ordinary size. To handle this, the patients will need to learn how to switch their viewing back and forth between the eye with the telescope implant and the eye without the implant; in effect, their eyes will have become individualized tools, with the surgically-enhanced eye focusing (so to speak) on detailed central vision, while the regular eye takes care of peripheral vision. I am trying very hard at this moment to imagine what two different eye-images look like, or how my brain might handle them, but I guess that's a neurological privilege that will have to wait until the blindness bug catches up with me in my old age.

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As macular degeneration largely affects those over 60, this sci-fi accoutrement may represent a first step towards an era of bionic Baby Boomers. I can't help but wonder: will my parents' generation, moneyed and plentiful, create a market for many more such prosthetic devices that fight age-related ailments? My grandmother fought her blindness with pragmatic adaptations; she had her front steps painted in bright white and a nurse who read her books out loud to her. Will her children and grandchildren fend off the grave with surreal gizmos like microscopic eye telescopes and robotic arms? I have a feeling that the answer is yes.

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Informative post. Thanks.

Awesome! Of course, for some of us, the rehab will be quite easy. I am already near sighted in one eye and far sighted in the other, and the difference is extreme enough that my brain only pays attention to one eye or the other at any given time. If you see me walking down the street, I've usually got my right eye squinted shut, and when I read, the left. Very cool! When/if the time comes, I'll be all over this.

By Jeffrey Westall (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think it's worth pointing out that there are two type of AMD - wet and dry. My own mother was recently diagnosed with Wet AMD, thankfully early, had roughly 4 injections into her eye (not a pleasant thought but imagine the alternative) and is now, for all intents and purposes, cured. Our lovely NHS is much maligned but it's there when you need it. The following link might be useful too:
http://www.RNIB.org.uk/AMD

Dry AMD appears to be what your grandmother suffered?

Cool! I realize this is a terrible affliction, but the engineering and implantation are amazing! The idea we've come to a point where a device like this can be implanted is phenomenol.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 21 Jul 2010 #permalink