optical tech

The science of eye care really is miraculous. There’s always some new research or breakthrough with the potential to change lives just around the proverbial corner. With new technology, diagnoses, and treatments developing all the time, it’s easy to lose track of some of the coolest findings and innovations.

Don’t panic! We’ve put together this handy recap going over some of the biggest, craziest, and most important eye care developments in the last few years. Here are 5 advancements in optical technology that you should be excited about.

1. Ultra-Thin Artificial Retinas

Your retinas are not a part of your body you want to damage. They’re incredibly sensitive, very delicate, and obviously, not easy to replace. The complexity of the retina just makes it that much more incredible that researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Seoul in Korea have developed an artificial retina from an ultra-thin 2D material!

The natural retina is an incredibly light-sensitive system of tissues at the back of your eye. When light hits the retina, it sends an impulse through your optic nerve to your brain. Your brain then interprets the impulse as an image. So basically, your retinas are central to your vision. Retinal detachments, tears, and retinal diseases like diabetic retinopathy can mean serious, permanent vision loss.

Typically, vision loss due to retinal damage can’t be undone. However, there’s a chance that an artificial retina could restore some vision to patients suffering from retinal diseases. The artificial retina that Dr. Nashu Lu (University of Texas) and Dr. Dae-Hyeong Kim (University of Seoul) have developed is thinner and more flexible than previous prosthetic retinas and may be less likely to cause eye strain or damage to surrounding tissues.

2. 3D Printed Corneas

You can make almost anything with a 3D printer. Apparently “almost anything” includes body parts. Researchers in Newcastle have 3D printed a functional and biocompatible artificial human cornea.

The cornea is the outside dome of your eyeball that covers your lens, pupil, and iris. An ideal cornea bends light, bringing it to a focus point on your retina. Diseases like trachoma can seriously damage the cornea and result in blindness. While cornea transplants are possible, there’s a massive shortage of transplantable human corneas.

Enter Dr. Connon and Dr. Swioklo. These two UK-based researchers have found a way to create several new prosthetic corneas from a single human cornea. The whole process starts with what they call “bio-ink,” a special printing material made from collagen, alginate, and corneal stromal cells from a donated cornea. From there, it’s just a matter of printing the corneas; a task that may take as little as ten minutes!

While these man-made corneas aren’t ready to be transplanted just yet, the technology looks promising, and the implications are huge.

3. Non-Invasive Vision Correction

Everyone wants clearer vision, but some people don’t feel like surgery is worth it. But what if your vision could be corrected without going under the knife? Sinisa Vukelic, an engineering researcher at Columbia University, has developed a non-surgical method of vision correction.

When the curve of your cornea is too steep or not steep enough, it causes light to focus improperly in your eye, resulting in nearsightedness or farsightedness. This issue can be corrected with LASIK, a highly effective and popular form or surgery that involves cutting a flap in the cornea and reshaping the middle corneal layers with lasers.

Vukelic’s new method of vision correction also involves a laser. However, this procedure doesn’t involve a flap, or any cutting whatsoever. Using repeated pulses of very low energy from a super-fast laser called femtosecond oscillator, this technique selectively changes specific areas of the corneal tissue on a macroscopic level.

According to preclinical models, this type of vision correction will be less traumatic to the corneal tissue while still producing effective results. Even more exciting is that fact that a non-invasive solution means permanent vision correction could finally be an option for patients with dry eyes, thin corneas, and other conditions.

4. Smart Contact Lenses

Smart technology is everywhere. We’ve got smartphones, smart TVs, even smart forks. (Seriously, that’s a real thing!) But maybe one of the most promising forays into smart tech is the smart contact lens which could help patients with diabetes.

Diabetes can cause significant damage to the eyes, so it almost seems karmic that a contact lens could be the next piece of technology to help keep diabetes in check. Research indicates that tears are one way to measure blood-glucose levels.

Several researchers are currently working on a contact lens that comes equipped with a glucose sensor which can analyze the wearer’s tears in real time throughout the day. If the wearer’s glucose levels get too high, it trips the sensor, causing a small LED light in the contact lens to light up.

This technology is a ways away from hitting the market, but once it’s released, it’ll be a huge victory for diabetic patients. Not only will diabetics not have to stop what they’re doing throughout the day to check their blood sugar, they won’t have to deal with regular needle jabs. As far as we’re concerned, not drawing blood on the daily is a big step forward.

5. Telescopic Eye Implants

Mechanical or electronic eyes are fundamentally cool and futuristic. Who could forget that glowing red light staring from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cybernetic skull in the Terminator franchise?

The concept of technology-assisted eyes is one that we associate with science fiction, but reality may be even more awesome than what we’ve seen in comic books. Thanks to implantable miniature telescopes, we can now use technology to improve vision for patients in the late stages of age-related macular degeneration.

Age-related macular degeneration is a disease that causes slow, but irreversible damage to the macula; the small area of the retina responsible for central vision. The more damage the macula sustains, the more your central vision deteriorates, making it hard to read, recognize faces, and other simple tasks. Patients with advanced macular damage sometimes notice “blind spots” in their vision.

An implantable miniature telescope (or IMT) is surgically placed in the eye, replacing the eye’s natural lens. Once it’s in place, the IMT magnifies all light entering the eye. Because your eye takes in more light, your vision doesn’t have to rely as much on the damaged macular cells. This basically minimizes blind spots and allows the viewer to see a more complete image.

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