23 March 2015

New mobile system concept captures high-resolution images inside the eye

Retina smartphone image

It’s crunch time for smartphones to prove what they can do in the medical world. The second killer app, the one to follow the Alivecor heart monitor, has yet to decisively emerge. For many reasons the next device to take its place within the tricorder trinity handhelds that combine sensing, computing, and recording might be expected to use fancy optics to see inside the body. Few better places for a first application exist than the eye. Seizing upon these truths, researchers at Rice have developed a smartphone peripheral they call Mobilevision to image the most sensitive part of the eye in high definition.

When the researchers talked to eye care specialists about what is needed in the business, the response they typically got was “Can you image the macula?” The macula is the sensitive part of the eye, the part that includes the both the fovea and adjacent regions with a high density of photoreceptors. Patients with diabetes or other issues that lead to degeneration in the eye need regular scans to catch issues before they snowball. In reality, few folks adhere to the strict monthly maintenance plan their condition requires.

The main problem is that not only does the patient have to go to the instrument for a scan, but they also need to have their eyes dilated with drugs in order to get a decent picture. A smarter way for everyone involved is to not have to do either of those things. A smartphone accessory that can go instead to the patient fixes the first problem, and letting the pupil dilate in the dark on its own time solves the second. While it sounds like a no-brainer to do this, the instrument has to at least be fast enough (within a few hundred milliseconds) to snap some decent images during the brief illumination pulse before the pupil re-contracts.

The Rice instrument not only can do all this automatically, but it lets the user, ‘the patient one,’ do this on their own time. As the video shows, the device gives a visual cue when everything is in focus. Then the user presses a button to trigger the action. The device itself, likely a prototype, looks like it could be shrunk even further by replacing the optical hardware that holds critical components (lens, beamsplitters, or whatever else one might expect) in place with a mass-produced casting.

The researchers note that the eye is the only region of the body where you can do direct, noninvasive imaging of internal blood vessels. While we see why they claim that, there are perhaps other potential portals to consider for the future. Over a decade ago, I went to a small startup company in the Northeast area to demo a unique device. It was a fiber-optic wand bearing blue light that, if placed on the tissue below the tongue, could image individual red blood cells squeezing through your capillaries. It was incredible to see: your own working cells large as life, right on the screen right in front of you.

I don’t fully know how that particular gadget worked, and whether it has been commercialized since. But once a couple of these devices are out there, we may quickly see a whole new era of medical diagnostics unfold before us.

(Retinal image credit: Adam Samaniego/Rice University)



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