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Insights From A Virtual Eye

Insights From A Virtual EyeUsing a custom-designed eye simulator, a Tufts-New England Medical Center doctor is leading cutting-edge research that may help prevent blindness.

Boston [07.26.02] Scientists don't know what causes retinal detachment or how to prevent it, but they do know that it can have devastating consequences. Of the 25,000 people who suffer from the condition every year, almost a third have irreparable eye damage, including blindness. But new research by a doctor at Tufts-New England Medical Center [NEMC] - conducted with a unique digital eye simulator he designed - may provide doctors with a fresh look at the causes of the condition and new ideas for treating and preventing it.

"[Tufts' Dr. Robert Park] is simulating the eye and movements that create stresses in hopes of discovering more about retinal detachments," reported the July issue of Machine Design - an engineering trade magazine circulated to over 180,000 people nationwide.

Most common in the middleaged and elderly, retinal detachment occurs when blood circulation to the outer retina - which sends visual messages through the optic nerve to the brain - is cut off, causing vision loss. The condition has been commonly linked to age, but can also be caused by trauma to the head or body.

A scientist and engineer, Park is using his unique skills to conduct research on the eye from an innovative perspective.

"As a retinal surgeon, I became curious. Which areas of the eye are most susceptible to damage? And what happens when the eye is in motion?" he told the magazine. "As an engineer, I tried to quantify answers to those questions in terms of peak stresses."

To help him better understand how different movements cause stress within the eye, Park - who teaches in the ophthalmology department of Tufts' School of Medicine - used high-tech software to design a virtual eye.

"Although there is research on retinal adhesion and the tensile strengths of eye tissues, no one has ever modeled the entire eye and looked at stresses generated during movements," he told Machine Design.

While still in its early stages, Park's research has already yielded some valuable findings.

Using his digital simulator, the Tufts doctor discovered that the highest levels of retinal stress are found in the top, outside quadrant of the eye - which may provide the first hard data to explain why most retinal detachments occur there.

Park has plans to refine his simulator to capture more of the eye's complexities. He also hopes to expand the amount of virtual experiments he can conduct on his digital eye.

"I plan to simulate stresses generated by other eye movements, as well as various body movements, such as walking and running," Park told the magazine. "Trauma induced by accidents will also be included."

By giving doctors a more accurate understanding about the sources of stress on the eye, Park's work may also lead to better treatment for patients.

"Retinal surgeons routinely recommend patients limit activity after surgery," Park said. "However, we don't have real data on the kinds of activities that place the greatest stress on the retina. If the activities we limit after surgery are no greater than something uncontrollable like REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, does it make sense to make these recommendations at all?"

Diagram of eye courtesy of National Eye Institute. Image of Dr. Parks courtesy Machine Design.


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