Computer Game Helps Scientists Understand How the Retina Functions

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Photo credit: hobbs_luton, Flickr Creative Commons

Can playing a computer game help scientists learn more about neurons in the retina? Dr. Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), thinks so.

EyeWire, a project developed by Dr. Seung, allows players to fill in 3-D images of neurons on a computer with color, which reveals the shape of that cell. By coloring in these shapes, the players help identify specific neurons that constitute retinal cells. This process then helps scientists map the connections between neurons in the retina, which can lead to a greater understanding of how vision works.

This is no small undertaking. According to Amy Robinson, Creative Director of the Seung Lab at MIT, it takes 50 hours to map one neuron, and there are 85 billion neurons in one human brain. To analyze the structure of these neurons, it’s necessary to examine a lot of images. However, computers can’t analyze these images: only human eyes—and human intelligence—will suffice. That’s why EyeWire is calling on the public, and fortunately, people are eager to help. By playing EyeWire, the public can become citizen scientists—even without a medical degree in ophthalmology or a background in neuroscience. By playing the coloring game, these intellectually curious gamers are helping scientists learn more about the eye, while having fun and connecting with others in this citizen science community.

To play EyeWire and learn more about the project, click here. Kudos to both the team at Seung labs at MIT and these citizen scientists for helping to further eye research!

Have a Happy and Safe Holiday!

There are many time-honored traditions during the holiday season, but perhaps none so special as watching our children scramble to open their gifts with joy and excitement. A lot of preparation goes into making those magical moments come to life, and amidst the chaos of getting ready for holiday festivities, we always want keep our loved ones safe—especially our kids.

Below are some tips from Prevent Blindness to help you pick safe, age-appropriate toys for the holidays.

Keep The Child’s Age In Mind

• Ask yourself or the parent if the toy is right for the child’s ability and age.
• Consider whether other smaller children may be in the home who might play with the toy.
• Don’t give toys with small parts to young children, who tend to put things in their mouths: it increases the risk of choking.
• If any part of a toy can fit inside a toilet paper roll, the toy is not appropriate for children under the age of 3.

Make Sure The Toys Are Safe

• Avoid purchasing toys with sharp or rigid points, spikes, rods, or dangerous edges.
• Buy toys that will withstand impact and not break into dangerous shards.
• Avoid toys that shoot, or that include parts that fly off.
• When giving sports equipment, also provide protective gear—such as a basketball along with eye goggles, or a face guard with a new batting helmet for baseball or softball.

You can find the full list of tips on the Prevent Blindness website.

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Photo credit: JD-Hancock: Flickr Creative Commons

The holidays should be joyous and fun for everyone, especially little ones. I hope these tips help ensure your entire family has a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season.

Wishing you a joyous end to 2014 and a Happy New Year in 2015!

How to Take Care of Your Contact Lenses

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you’re one of the over 30 million Americans who wears contact lenses, they can be a convenient, effective way to correct your vision. However, it is also important to remember that contact lenses are medical devices that require proper care and handling. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has developed helpful guidelines for caring for your contact lenses, in partnership with the Contact Lens Association for Ophthalmologists, the Cornea Society, and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.

Regardless of the type of contact lens you have, proper care and handling of your contact lenses and contact lens solution are essential. Follow these guidelines to avoid eye infections and keep your eyes in good health.

Did Impressionist Painters Have Poor Vision?

Paintings from Impressionists often look blurry or elongated, and art critics have wondered if these artists had poor eyesight when the Impressionist movement began in the late 1800’s. Glasses were widely available at this time, so this revolutionary movement in art wasn’t driven by near-sightedness or astigmatism; it was a group of innovative artists portraying a different view of the world.

While vision issues didn’t catalyze the Impressionism, many of the most famous artists of this time, including Monet, Degas and others, suffered from vision loss as they aged. An ophthalmologist, Dr. Richard Fish, has examined the careers and eye health of famous Impressionists and details how vision loss may have impacted their art.

Watch this video to learn more: http://bit.ly/ImpressionistsandVisionLoss

Did you know that smoking can harm your vision, too?

Photo credit: visioninitiative.org.au

Photo credit: visioninitiative.org.au

The Public Health Agency (PHA) in Northern Ireland recently released data revealing that only 10% of smokers realize that their smoking habit can have a negative impact on their eye health. This is contrasted with 92% associating smoking with lung cancer, and 88% identifying a link between smoking and heart disease.

Smoking can increase your risk for any number of eye conditions, including: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), nuclear cataracts, thyroid eye disease, dry eye and poor color vision. Quitting smoking can help reduce the risk of developing these sight-threatening eye conditions.

To learn more about the PHA’s campaign to raise awareness smoking and eye health click on this link: http://bit.ly/SmokingandEyeHealth

Find Out if You Qualify for a Free Eye Exam

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According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, by age 65, one in three Americans has some form of vision-impairing eye disease. To help address this need, EyeCare America, the public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, is providing free eye exams through volunteer ophthalmologists to those who qualify.

Qualifying individuals must be 65 years or older, and have not seen an eye doctor in three or more years.

For more information about the program or to see if you qualify, visit EyeCare America’s Online Referral Center.

The Benefits of Preventative Eye Screening for Children

Photo Credit: PreventBlindness.org

Photo Credit: PreventBlindness.org

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control highlights the importance of preventative vision screening among children less than six years of age, noting that preschool vision screening is critical to improving long-term vision outcomes.

Conditions such as amblyopia, or lazy eye, are associated with an increase in visual impairment in adults, but can usually be corrected through early detection and treatment. Unfortunately, effectiveness of treatment decreases with age, underlying the importance of early screening.

For more information, visit the full report on the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6302a7.htm?s_cid=su6302a7_e

The Many Fascinating Layers of the Retina

The many fascinating layers of the retina

Photo credit: Foundation Fighting Blindness

The retina is like a multi-layer cake, with each layer containing different cells that play various roles in retinal health and vision. Following is a summary of the major retinal cell types, their functions and their potential roles in future treatments of diseases (editorial credit to the Foundation Fighting Blindness):

Choroid — The choroid is a layer of blood vessels that supplies oxygen and nourishment to the retina. Defects in the CHM gene cause choroideremia, a disease characterized by deterioration of the choroid, retinal pigment epithelium and photoreceptors. In the wet form of age-related macular degeneration, leaky blood vessels expand from the choroid into the retina—a process called choroidal neovascularization—which causes loss of photoreceptors and central vision.

Retinal pigment epithelium — Also known as the RPE, this is a single layer of cells behind the photoreceptors that provides them with essential nutrition and waste removal. In age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt disease, toxic waste products accumulate in the RPE or between the RPE and photoreceptors. Subsequently, the RPE deteriorates, leading to loss of photoreceptors.

Photoreceptors — These are the retinal cells, known as rods and cones, which initiate the vision process by converting light into electrical signals. Rods provide low-light and peripheral vision. Cones are concentrated in the macula, the central region of the retina, and provide central and color vision. The outer segments of rods and cones are antenna-like projections that absorb light and convert it into electrical signals. Inner segments are the cell bodies where other supportive functions are performed. The adult human retina has approximately 125 million photoreceptors.

Bipolar cells — Their job is to receive electrical information on lighting intensity from photoreceptors and pass it along to other retinal cells. Bipolar cells often survive after photoreceptors are lost to disease. This makes them an attractive target for emerging optogenetic treatments, which are designed to provide light sensitivity and restore vision.

Ganglion cells — Ganglion cells receive input from many different cells in the inner retinal layers and process visual information, including detection of edges, contrast and colors. Ganglion cells extend to form an optic nerve, a million-fiber cable that conveys visual information from the eye to the brain. In people with advanced retinal disease, ganglion cells often survive longer than bipolar cells, making them a potential target for optogenetic therapies. Currently, scientists believe that bipolar cells may provide a more detailed visual experience than ganglion cells when treated with a light-sensing therapy, because they reside in layers of the retina closer to photoreceptors.

Muller glia — Muller cells extend through the retina, like spokes of a wheel, providing structural support and guiding light through the inner retina. They also transport molecules critical to retinal health and vision. Researchers believe Muller cells may even have the capacity to become new photoreceptors, which could lead to restoring vision. The research is still new, but success might someday have a big impact on the vision of people with advanced diseases.

For more information, visit the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

Preventing Sports Eye Injuries

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

With school sports well underway, it’s imperative that kids and their parents understand the importance of proper eye protection. According to Prevent Blindness, every year more than 25,000 Americans suffer from an eye injury while playing sports.

Prevent Blindness recommends the following steps for avoiding sports-related eye injuries:

  • Wear lensed polycarbonate safety goggles for racquet sports and basketball. Ensure the eyewear is labeled as ASTM F803 approved, which indicates it is performance tested to offer the highest level of protection.
  • Use batting helmets with polycarbonate face shields for baseball.
  • Use helmets and face shields approved by the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association while playing hockey.
  • Understand that regular glasses do not provide sufficient protection.

To raise awareness of and prevent sports-related eye injuries, Prevent Blindness offers the following free resources on its website:

Have fun and stay safe!

 

Common Vision Changes Associated with Aging

 

As we age, it’s common to have changes in our vision. While some vision changes are an expected part of the aging process other changes may be a sign of something more serious. The American Academy of Ophthalmology provided a list of common visual changes adults might experience as they age and their potential underlying causes and treatments available. As always, if you have concerns, talk to your ophthalmologist.

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Hazy central vision could be a sign of age-related macular degeneration. Photo courtesy of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Difficulty reading

This condition is called presbyopia. Nearly all adults experience this starting around age 40, as our eyes age and our lenses become less flexible, making it harder to read at close range. The most common treatment is to use reading glasses.

Burning, stinging or watering eyes

These can all be a sign of dry eye syndrome, which is very common as people age, especially in women undergoing hormonal changes. For most people, over-the-counter lubricating eye drops provide sufficient relief. If these do not relieve symptoms, your ophthalmologist may prescribe medication or suggest other treatments.

Seeing floaters or flashes of light

“Floaters” or “clouds” are caused by tiny clumps of protein floating in the vitreous gel (the fluid inside the eye). The vitreous gel can also pull at the retina as it moves causing a person to see what looks like flashes of light. Both floaters and flashes become more common as we age, but a sudden increase in floaters or the sudden appearance of flashes could be a sign of a torn retina and should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist immediately. In this case, surgery may be necessary.

Muted colors or halos around lights

These can be a sign of cataracts, or a clouding of the eye’s lens. Nearly everyone develops cataracts as they age. Surgery is usually required to treat cataracts and has been shown to significantly improve vision. Cataract surgery is one of the more common elective surgeries performed in the United States.

Hazy central vision

If your central vision is hazy, making it difficult to recognize faces, you may have age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Because symptoms of AMD are usually not noticeable until vision loss has already occurred, routine eye exams are critical to preventing early vision loss. AMD has two forms – wet and dry. Treatment for wet AMD includes injections of a drug that blocks the growth of abnormal blood vessels. At this time, dry AMD has no proven treatment.

Deteriorating peripheral vision

If you are having trouble seeing in your peripheral vision, you may be experiencing signs of glaucoma. Vision loss from glaucoma is so gradual that many people don’t even notice it until their sight has been significantly affected. Early intervention is key in preventing vision loss from glaucoma, especially in those with certain risk factors such as African or Hispanic ancestry, or those with migraines, diabetes or low blood pressure. The most common treatment for glaucoma is medicated eye drops.

For more information, visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s website.