How Technology can Predict Cataracts

Stephen, a 43-year-old engineer, knew his vision had changed a little in the last year. Although he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was different, he suspected that things just didn’t look as bright.

A trip to his eye doctor revealed nothing out of the ordinary. However, a few months later, he finally found out the probable cause, thanks to NASA and the space shuttle.

Researchers from the space agency are now utilizing technology to reveal whether a cataract is forming even before an individual’s vision becomes cloudy, according to Lauran Neergarrd, writing in the October 2009 issue of the Washington Beacon (“Device helps predict cataract formation,” p. 6). Often the results from this technology reveal abnormalities long before a practitioner can detect them in a standard vision exam.

Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss. By taking advantage of a NASA gadget that tells when a person’s eyes are losing the natural compound that wards off cataracts, individuals who are classified as vulnerable can take steps to protect their eyes. They’re at a lower risk for cataracts if they avoid cigarette smoke, wear sunglasses and improve their diets.

The NASA development – know thus far as a laser light technique – makes it easier to test whether certain medications might prevent or at least slow the formation of cataracts. The agency is likely to soon kick off studies of astronauts, who experience high risk due to space flights, as well as civilians.

So far, the Federal government has just a few prototypes of the technology on hand. However, practitioners at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have begun to figure out how they can incorporate the new exam into the treatment of a variety of patients. A study of 235 individuals conducted by researchers at the National Eye Institute suggested the technique works. Currently, the only effective treatment for cataracts is surgery to replace the lens of the eye.

The noninvasive technology is the byproduct of NASA’s development of a low-powered laser light device to assist astronauts with their experiments growing crystals in space. One of the scientists, intrigued by a parent’s development of cataracts, discovered the lens of the human eye consists largely of water and proteins.

One protein, known as alpha-crystallin, is crucial to keeping the lens transparent. When other proteins become damaged by the sun’s UV radiation, tobacco smoke or the aging process, alpha-crystallins scarf them up before they get a chance to stick together and congregate on the lens. Once their supply has been depleted, it’s open season for cataracts.

Experiments revealed that the space laser could measure particles in the lens. Since small particles flow quickly and larger ones move more slowly, the light focused on them scatters in different and measurable patterns.

A decade later, a machine that measures alpha-crystallin aims a special laser at the individual’s lens for five seconds, then calculates the light scattering. NASA and NIH researchers plan to study whether particular formations of antioxidants can slow alpha-crystallin loss. These nutrients are known to fight certain age-related tissue damage.

At the National Eye Institute, doctors have used the laser technology to diagnose cataracts beginning to form in patients with worsening vision after their doctors had been unable to find any reason for the problem. Patients at Johns Hopkins who are nearsighted and concerned that their LASIK surgery is wearing off have been evaluated to make sure the problem isn’t related to a cataract instead. Researchers are also evaluating diabetics especially prone to cataracts.