Jane Koretz believes the eyes aging process could be stopped with the development of an artificial lens to restore focusing power. That is the eventual goal of her work, but she cannot surmise when the technology might be available. Its a monumental task. The eye is delicate, and a lens like this would have to last for 20 to 30 years, Koretz explains.
In the meantime, Koretz, professor of biology, continues to study the intricate focusing mechanisms of the eye, which she has been doing for more than 20 years.
According to Koretz, the eyeball has achieved most of its growth by age three, but the lens is always growing. The lens, which lies behind the cornea and the iris, is formed through the addition of cell layers. However, it does not shed old cells, so these layers build up, much like the rings of a tree. As the lens grows larger it also becomes more difficult to change its shape for the focusing process. This is why most people need reading glasses by their 40s or 50s, Koretz says.
With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Koretz is studying alpha crystallin, the protein that makes up 50 percent of the dry weight of the lens. Understanding the properties of alpha crystallin could lead to a better understanding of the eyes aging process.
When the proteins of the lens aggregate, they make the lens less transparent. This natural aging process also lessens the lenss refractive power and causes glare, which is why most older people have difficulty seeing at night.
Around the age of 20 or so, the ability to focus extremely close up begins to decrease dramatically, but most people dont realize it because they are not performing tasks so close to their faces, says Koretz.
And because alpha crystallin is associated with amyloid bodies, or abnormal proteins, Koretzs work could help researchers in their quest to find the cause of Alzheimers and other amyloid diseases.
Mapping the Eye
Badri Roysam, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, is working on a project to improve laser retinal surgery that could benefit the nearly 20 million individuals in the U.S. alone who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and AIDS-related CMV retinitis.
Roysam, Chuck Stewart, professor, and Chris Carothers, assistant professor, both in computer science, are developing a preliminary design for a laser surgery instrument that uses computer vision technology. They hope to have a prototype in the next two years.
Currently the success rate for retinal laser surgery is below 50 percent because surgeons dont have the spatial referencing tools to accurately aim the laser during surgery. Often the laser either burns healthy tissue along with damaged tissue, or it does not burn away enough of the damaged tissue, explains Roysam. The new system developed at Rensselaer will allow surgeons to work from a three-dimensional image of the retina rather than a flat surface representation, and will precisely pinpoint locations on the image in real time.
Roysams graduate student Hong Shen helped develop the state-of-the-art technology using a fast algorithm that can grab a retinal image from a microscope every 33 milliseconds, locate blood vessels (or landmarks), index them, and find those same features in real time on a mosaic of those images.
We like to think of this as a sort of GPS (global positioning satellite system) for the eye, Roysam said. Doctors can use it to target laser treatment to avoid destruction of healthy tissue much like military personnel use GPS to target missiles accurately, he said.
Roysam and his colleagues plan to have a Web server running by this summer that will allow ophthalmologists from around the world to upload retinal images for diagnostic purposes. Clinicians will be able to upload their images to this server, and have them processed by our algorithms. They can then download the results, explains Roysam. The results will consist of higher resolution mosaics of the retina and movie-like animations that can help detect changes in the retina.
While our goal is to eventually improve laser surgery, our three-dimensional modeling can be used for diagnosis and treatment procedures prior to surgery, which is a great improvement on the methods already in use, says Stewart.
Roysam and his team are collaborating with Dr. Howard Tanenbaum, the director of The Center for Sight in Albany, N.Y. They have $1.5 million in funding from NSF, NIH, and other sources.
The work falls under the Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems, a new multi-institutional Engineering Research Center established by the National Science Foundation.
Lighting the Way for the Elderly
What does the aging eye need to see better? Most people address lighting problems by adding another lamp, or putting in a brighter bulb. But more watts are not always better, explains Mariana Figueiro, program director at Rensselaers Lighting Research Center (LRC).
This summer, the LRC will publish one of the first comprehensive guides to improving lighting for seniors.
A grant from the AARP Andrus Foundation will allow Figueiro, Peter Boyce, professor of architecture, and Mark Rea, director of the LRC, to translate the results of the LRCs work into three separate brochures: one for the general public, including older adults and their families; a second for home designers, architects, and builders; and a third for caregivers and the medical community. The brochures will provide much-needed guidelines and educate people on the special lighting needs of older adults.
Some of the principles they will discuss have already been published through the LRCs Demonstration and Evaluation of Lighting Technologies and Applications (DELTA) Program, which has undertaken evaluation of the lighting in South Mall Towers, a senior residential facility in Albany, and McClean Village Apartments, an independent living facility for seniors in Simsbury, Conn.
This project will make people aware that they can improve their daily lives through lighting and teach them how to do it, explained Figueiro.
The LRC is also expanding its research to explore the impact of lighting on human circadian rhythms. This could provide help for people suffering from disturbed sleep and wake patterns, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and postpartum depression.
We want to make the link between medical issues and lighting, explains Figueiro. She says the LRC is looking at funding opportunities for the study of lighting on Alzheimers patients, who often exhibit disrupted sleep and wake patterns.
We know that exposure to light can make people more alert, for example, night-shift nurses, but we still dont know exactly what spectrum of light has the most effect on the human body, Figueiro says.
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