Glaucoma is one of those sneaky diseases that fly under your radar until it’s too late to do anything about. Imaging techniques have been steadily evolving over the past decade but none can detect glaucoma early enough to prevent the disease.
Early enough to slow the disease, yes, but to prevent it and stop it from progressing at all? Not quite. However, a new study led by chair of the medical optics department at the University of Rochester Medical Center, David Williams, has found a new non-invasive imaging technique to detect glaucoma much, much earlier.
Before we dive into the thick of the science behind this new imaging technique, let’s go over some basics about glaucoma. If you avidly read our blog, you probably already know the ins and outs of glaucoma. But if you’re new to the blog, welcome; and you can find more in depth information about glaucoma here!
So, glaucoma; what is it? Glaucoma is an incurable eye disease that affects three million Americans. It is also the leading cause of blindness in America. The reason for this is because it is a tough disease to detect.
Glaucoma can be brought on by a number of things, but the most common cause is defective meshwork in the eye which prevents the fluid to flow smoothly. When this happens, the intraocular pressure builds, causing loss of vision and sometimes blindness.
Glaucoma, however, can be brought on by other factors too such as an eye injury (i.e. a blunt hit to the eye by a ball or debris), eye infections, eye inflammation, and abnormal blood vessel formation due to diabetes or diabetic retinopathy.
There are several types of glaucoma depending on what caused it. Depending on the type, the treatments will vary. Most glaucoma is treated with medication, eye drops (or a combination of both), and sometimes in severe cases, surgery. As of now, glaucoma has no known cure.
How Is Glaucoma Diagnosed?
Like I said, glaucoma is a tough disease to catch. Because of this, it is important to have an eye exam at least every two years; or once a year if you have any existing vision conditions. Glaucoma has no symptoms prior to vision loss, which is why only a doctor can truly tell you if you’ve got it or not.
The problem with diagnosing glaucoma is that it can sometimes be difficult to detect, thus requiring multiple exams. A glaucoma exam will often include testing the eye pressure, inspecting drainage in the eye, inspecting the optic nerve, a visual field test, and finally, measuring the thickness of the cornea.
As you can, detecting glaucoma is no easy feat for the doctor or the patient. It requires, well, patience. But it is an important part of your eye exam. An annual eye exam doesn’t always include a comprehensive glaucoma exam so you will have to request one.
When glaucoma is detected using these methods, it is often caught at a stage where the disease has already begun to progress (even if it’s early detection) and cannot be stopped. You and your doctor can work to slow the disease, but unfortunately you can’t reverse the damage.
New Imaging Techniques
Time for what you’ve all been waiting for! What are these new imaging techniques that will help detect glaucoma much earlier so as to maybe be able to prevent it before the disease has a chance to progress?
Well, the basics of the new technique aren’t too hard to follow. Basically, this new non-invasive procedure can detect these cells called retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). Until now, these cells were almost undetectable because they are nearly invisible.
The death of RGCs in the eye is what causes blindness in those suffering from glaucoma. These cells carry most of the responsibility when it comes to carrying information from the eyes to the brain.
Williams explains that by the time our current methods detect glaucoma, the eye has lost about 100,000 RGCs. Considering the average eye only has 1.2 million RGCs; a 100,000 RGC loss is quite detrimental.
However, this new imaging technique allows doctors to be able to monitor RGCs to detect RGC loss before it becomes too significant to prevent glaucoma.
How Does It Work?
The technology behind this new imaging technique isn’t actually anything new. Instead, it is a modified version of a confocal adaptive optics scanning light ophthalmoscopy. This is used to scan the eye to be able to see even the smallest cells.
Until now, this technology was unable to detect RGCs because of their translucent appearance. But due to this tweak in the technology, the device is now able to perceive RGCs and other translucent cells that were otherwise invisible before.
This discovery will lead to a whole world of new detection. Imaging will soon be able to detect cells that were undetectable before and will perhaps help with detecting other eye diseases related to cell deaths earlier for better prevention and treatment.
What Comes Next?
Researchers are working on conducting actual tests, but they are coming soon. Williams and Ethan A. Rossi of the University of Pittsburgh are in the process of setting up a lab to perform tests using the technique with this new technology.
The hope is that this new type of imaging will not only open the doors to an early way to detect glaucoma, but a way to also detect changes in retinal cells to reduce the chance of retinal diseases including age-related macular degeneration.
Though this new discovery is exciting and hopeful, there still remains a long road of research ahead. Researchers still need to perfect the imaging and do human trials.
The future remains bright for those with glaucoma and for those who may develop it. Until there’s a cure, we’ll continue to keep you posted with the latest news in glaucoma prevention technology.