New tech holds promise for low-vision patients

Developmental vision-enhancing devices could bridge the gap between science fiction and science fact while making obtrusive low-vision aids a thing of the past.

“A nearly three-time magnification can take someone from 20/100 and allow them to achieve the all-important 20/40 level.”
Prototype versions of a telescopic contact lens and complementary pair of ‘wink-sensing’ smart glasses—designed to allow wearers to easily switch between normal and magnified vision—were unveiled earlier this month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting.

The prototypes hold promise for low-vision or age-related macular degeneration (AMD) patients not only as a nonsurgical solution for a telescopic lens implant, but also as an alternative to traditional low-vision devices such as spectacle-mounted telescopes.

Devised by optics researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in collaboration with others in the United States, the device incorporates a thin reflective telescope inside a 1.55 mm thick scleral lens to produce a magnification of up to 2.8 times.

The telescopic lens works in conjunction with smart glasses that recognize winks and ignore blinks, allowing the wearer to wink his or her right eye for magnification and left eye for normal vision, for instance.

The prototypes remain exactly that, yet researchers hope the devices could enter the market in the next few years and prove helpful to low-vision patients.

Could these devices become mainstream?
More than 3 million Americans have low vision, a number that’s projected to increase to almost 9 million by 2050 with a steadily aging population and prevalence of conditions such as diabetes, AMD, cataracts and glaucoma, according to the National Eye Institute.

Low vision can impact everything in a patient’s life from reading to driving and working, often with few treatment options. That’s why advances in distance-enhancing devices such as these prototype lenses could offer some relief, says Thomas Quinn, O.D., AOA Contact Lens and Cornea Section (CLCS) chair.

“Assuming the optics worked and delivered as expected, a nearly three-time magnification can take someone from around 20/100 or better and allow them to achieve the all-important 20/40 level of distance visual acuity,” Dr. Quinn says. And that’s important because 20/40 is necessary for unrestricted driving, but even still, the magnification could help with daily routines.

Dr. Quinn says it’s important to note the use of a large scleral lens as the platform for the telescopic mirrors. Doctors are becoming more familiar with scleral lenses, especially for their advantages in people with irregular corneas and their comfort on the eye.

Although the prototypes show promise, Dr. Quinn says more work is needed to hone the optics and ensure the lens provides enough oxygen to keep the lens comfortable and the eye healthy.

Find patient resources on low vision and associated disorders at AOA Marketplace, access the AOA Optometric Clinical Practice Guideline on low vision, and select continuing education on low vision and scleral lens workshops at the 2015 Optometry’s Meeting®, June 24-28, in Seattle, Washington.

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