Smart Contact Lens Tech for Macular Degeneration and Other Vision Challenges

Smart Contact Lens Tech for Macular Degeneration and Other Vision Challenges

It was only a matter of time before the ‘opti-tech’ industry was able to develop successful smart contact lens applications. Using biological eye information relayed in real time to doctors, tracking software that can detect anomalies, or utilized as an assistance tool, smart contact lenses may become just as normal as hearing aids.

Research in the smart contact lens category has been going on for some time now with a variety in the prototype stage. Many lenses are recently being introduced as specific designs that may soon be a game changer when it comes to diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and presbyopia. Others go beyond medical applications and delve into almost sci-fi proportions.

These are some of the many developments currently being studied and possibly considered for mass marketing to help those who may be in harm’s way; already challenged by visual disease; or will use this technology to advance even healthy sight.

Tackling Design

As new synthetic materials are able to seamlessly connect with the human body, a host of wearable tech is continually being developed and smart contact lenses are one impressive result.

The problem in the past was being able to construct a lens that can detect, record and transport biological information without impeding normal activity, similar to current state-of-the-art pacemakers. Now, new polymers are able to integrate microscopic circuit boards that hold steady on the surface of the eyeball.

As reported by India’s The Economic Times (May 5/6/17),

“Researchers at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea have solved these issues [wearability] by developing a sensor based on transparent and flexible materials.”

The lenses are made of stretchable electrodes embedded in highly transparent graphene sheets and a detailed circuit of metal nano-wires.

Jang-Ung Park, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UNIST commented on the future of films coming to reality,

“We are now a step closer to the implementation of a fictional idea for a smart contact lens in the films, like “Minority Report” and “Mission: Impossible.”

Macular Degeneration Assist

Due to the slow visual deterioration associated with macular degeneration, prophylactic drugs and sometimes even surgery have been able to slow down this unfortunate progress. In addition, smart contact lenses may be able to help assist vision for those going through macular degeneration symptoms and medical treatment.

Known as wink-controlled lenses, this smart contact lens design has a built-in 1.55 millimeter reflective telescopic zoom that can be activated with the simple wink of an eye. Once light is introduced into the lens, small mirrors re-adjust the image perception enlarging the view to what is described as looking through low-level magnification binoculars. The original design for this smart contact lens was developed by the American military in a continued effort to integrate bionics onto the battlefield.

Currently, smart glasses are worn with these contact lenses but are being phased out once technology catches up. In the meantime, these lenses are essential for transporting visual impressions to the retina. Almost as rapid as a normal eye, this combination of smart contact lenses and  smart glasses allows the wearer to view what was once distorted. It’s not exactly seeing as the work around isn’t perfect yet, but according to Eric Tremblay, presenter of the smart lens developer Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland,

“We think these lenses hold a lot of promise for low vision and age-related macular degeneration,..At this point this is still research, but we are hopeful it will eventually become a real option for people with AMD.”

There are also researchers looking into smart contact lenses that may assist those challenged by presbyopia, or age-related farsightedness.

On Board Mechanics

Having systemic help in real time is now a growing possibility. These smart contact lenses are able to check and send information specifically by monitoring your biological visual functions.

One way is through your tears.

Your tears hold a wealth of information. Similar to the chemical compounds found in saliva, tears can be measured for oxygen, hormones, anti-microbial properties and blood sugar. These lenses measure the sugar levels in your tears while at the same time monitors your overall eye pressure.

A recent South Korean study of this smart contact lens design function was published in Nature Communications which lead researcher, Professor Park of UNIST commented,

“This study can be used to diagnose diseases (diabetes and glaucoma) by implementing two types of transparent electronic sensors in the production of smart contact lens sensors.”

One sensor monitors glucose levels found in tears and the other, IOP (intraocular pressure) the main threat to glaucoma. It uses a built-in wireless antennae relaying info to a computer readout without needing a battery or other power source. The fit is as comfortable as an average contact lens and laboratory studies show no long term side effects in wearability.

The Future of the Future of Smart Contact Lenses

Even though smart contact lenses are on the forefront of medical applications for macular degeneration, glaucoma, presbyopia and more, the extended future of this technology seems limitless. Google is also researching telescopic zoom contact lenses for various applications but it doesn’t end there.

There has been work on:

  • Lenses that create a type of “supervision” based on the eye anatomy of the elephant nose fish
  • A lens with the ability to check external conditions like allergens
  • A solar-powered lens to collect biometric data, like body temperature and blood-alcohol
  • Smart lenses that can see in the dark
  • A lens that can take pictures, surf the internet and shoot video
  • Driving lenses for safer, more efficient road travel

Smart contact lenses may sound frightening at first but if you look at the progression of medical and recreational technology it is yet another level toward essential integration. With these and similar designs, humans will only advance beyond what will once be thought of as archaic diseases, like macular degeneration, and unnecessary activities like turning on a light. Just like artificial limbs, joint replacement and even 3-D printing for medical applications, smart contact lenses are on course to change human vision for the better.