New “Smart” Contacts May Predict Blindness

Smart contact lenses could measure glaucoma patients’ eye pressure levels, predict future blindness

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) With smartphones, smart TVs and rumors of self-driving smart cars, it’s no surprise that smart contact lenses exist. But it may surprise you to learn just what makes these lenses so "smart."

In a new study, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) found that contact lenses with built-in sensors could determine which glaucoma patients were likely to see a progression in their disease.

This finding is significant considering that glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in people age 60 and older, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), and can often be prevented with early treatment. Glaucoma is a disease that causes fluid to build up in the eye, which increases pressure on the eye and damages its optic nerve.

To test the effectiveness of these "smart" lenses, researchers enlisted 40 glaucoma patients ages 40 to 89. Half of these patients had slow disease progression. The other half had fast disease progression.

Over the span of two years, researchers performed at least eight visual tests on the patients. The patients were then asked to wear the smart contacts for 24 hours, including while they slept.

The lenses detected fluctuations in eye pressure by sensing curvature changes in the eye, then emitted electrical signals that were recorded by a wireless device.

Researchers found that certain patterns of electrical signals correlated with a faster progression of glaucoma. In particular, patients who experienced steeper spikes overnight and more peaks overall in their signal profiles were more likely to have faster glaucoma progression.

"What we see in these measurements is a signature that indicates which glaucoma patients will get worse and which are relatively stable, which you can’t do with a one-time eye pressure measurement," said lead study author C. Gustavo De Moraes, MD, MPH, in a press release. Dr. De Moraes is an associate professor of ophthalmology at CUMC.

He added, "This could be very useful if you want to know whether a new medication is working for a patient. You can see how their eye is reacting to the therapy in a much more meaningful way."

According to Dr. De Moraes and colleagues, doctors can currently test eye pressure by taking a single snapshot of the eye. However, this method is impractical to perform at night — when eye pressure generally rises.

Researchers said these findings will allow doctors to better estimate a patient’s rate of glaucoma progression.

This study was published Feb. 4 in AAO’s journal Ophthalmology.

This research was funded in part by the New York Glaucoma Research Institute and the Shirlee and Bernard Brown Research Laboratory at Columbia University.

Conflicts of interest information was not available at the time of publication.

Review Date: 
February 9, 2016
Last Updated:
February 10, 2016