A snap-on cell phone device checks for cataracts

MIT researchers develop a smartphone tool that can detect cataracts quickly.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

In Brazil, a man named Francisco is holding a clip-on device up to his eye. The rigged iPhone can detect if he has any signs of cloudy patches. In a few minutes, he will know if he has cataracts, which is a leading cause of blindness if the condition isn't caught early enough.

MIT researchers developed the portable device called Catra. It's an iteration of the group's previous version called Netra, which checked for refractive errors to determine a person's eyeglass prescription. The portable testing device gathers more information than a visit to an ophthalmologist's office would provide, and can be used by individuals like Francisco in the developing world where trained professionals are in short supply.

Current testing requires equipment that costs $5,000 and highly trained experts to read the results, but this new technique uses a portable attachment, which scans the lens section by section to create a map of the entire eye, collecting details like the size and density of the cataract.

MIT's Media Lab Camera Culture professor Ramesh Raskar calls it a radar for the human eye, comparing it to the way weather radars are used to detect clouds in the sky.

"We turned the problem around. Instead of asking the doctor, we ask the patient,” Raskar said in a statement. Normally the doctor has to see what light is reflected back, but Catra depends on the patient's judgment of light passing through the lens.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. However, it is preventable if caught early. Blindness is treated by surgically removing the cataract. At the moment, the portable device gathers too much information, but the researchers said that it could be useful in the future when cataract therapies improve.

In terms of improving vision for all, one man by the name of Josh Silver previously said he wants to distribute his self-adjustable glasses to one billion people by 2020. It seems, giving the user control is the way to go in the developing world: Do-it-yourself eye care potentially could improve the vision of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Radar for the human eye [MIT News Office]

First Image [Erick Passos via MIT ] and Second image [screen shot from a Media lab video]

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