Magnetic control of vision

Doctors in the UK have performed a pioneering treatment using powerful magnets to fix a problem with a patient's gaze...
29 June 2017

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Doctors in the UK have performed a pioneering treatment using powerful magnets to fix a problem with a patient's gaze...

The 49 year old patient had a form of blood cancer that also caused him to develop a condition called nystagmus. He was unable to fix his gaze on a target because his eyes would spontaneously drift gently upwards, making it hard to focus on things. The experience was highly disorientating and debilitating to the extent that he could no longer work as an HGV driver. 

Thankfully, a team of surgeons and neurologists, led by Parashkev Nachev at University College London, came up with a way to solve the problem.

They implanted two small but powerful magnets into each of the patient's eyes. One magnet sits in the eye socket while the other is tucked under a slippery part of one of the muscles that inserts into and moves the globe of the eye.

The effect is to provide a relatively weak but stable non-contact force sufficient to prevent the eyes drifting off-target but not so strong as to prevent the man moving his eyes voluntarily.

"Obviously, we've done this only in one patient so far," says Nachev, "but it's been very successful to the extent that he's been able to return to work."

When they first carried out the treatment the team were concerned that the patient might suffer inflammation or an uncomfortable build-up of fibrous tissue around the eye.

It was also possible that the nervous system might adapt unpredictably to the influence of the magnet on the man's eye-movements.

"That's why we've waited so long - 4 years now - before we published this result so we could be sure what the outcomes would be. And the patient's doing very well."

Encouraged by their success, published this week in the journal Ophthalmology, the team are now embarking on a larger trial of the technique in other nystagmus patients.

What makes it doubly attractive is the relative ease with which the magnets can be implanted - it takes just 30 minutes to position them - and the patient has suffered no side effects so far.

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