A light at the end of the eye

New cures for diseases related to the retina, the tissue that connects to the brain at the back of the eyeball, have succeeded in reversing blindness
Seeing a man who has been blind since the age of 18 recover his sight at the age of 30 is one of the greatest satisfactions in the career of ophthalmic surgeon Borja Corcóstegui.

After examining the patient, a manager from ONCE (the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind), Corcóstegui realised that the cataract and the haemorrhage that prevented him from seeing could be reversed. Techniques to cure eye disorders have made great strides in recent decades, says the doctor. The greatest breakthrough has been bringing happiness to many more patients, says Stanley Chang, who is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Columbia University and considered to be the father of retinal surgery.

Both doctors met in Barcelona in early June at the international Trends in Medical and Surgical Retina conference, organised by Corcóstegui at the centre he directs, the Instituto de Microcirugía Ocular (IMO). The conference brought together 300 international experts, who attended lectures, observed eight live surgical interventions broadcast live on a giant screen and shared their knowledge of the retina. This thin layer of nerve tissue that lines the inside of the eye forms images which are sent to the brain via the optic nerve. Retinal disorders can cause the most severe cases of blindness, explains Corcóstegui. For example, diabetes-related retinal diseases are the leading cause of vision loss in adults under the age of 40 in the developed world. We tend to take sight for granted, but vision problems can radically affect our ability to enjoy life, says Chang. Some of these conditions tend to pass from parent to child.

For example, half of macular degeneration cases are caused by two specific gene mutations. Environment and habits can also play a role. Smoking causes cardiovascular disorders that can multiply degeneration by a factor of 5, says Corcóstegui. People who suffer from high levels of stress have a higher incidence of central serous retinopathy, adds Chang.

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