— For Wayne Rodgers, a 70-year-old retiree living in Tucson, Ariz., simple daily activities like buttering toast or pouring a cup of coffee once bordered on the impossible. Five years ago, after his vision had been getting progressively blurry, Rodgers was diagnosed with macular degeneration in both eyes.
"I hope you didn't drive over here," Rodgers quoted his doctor as telling him at the time, "because you're legally blind."
The macula, located at the back of the eye, is responsible for central vision. When that area is damaged through macular degeneration, a blurry spot is created in the center of that field of vision, leaving only some peripheral sight.
An estimated 8.7 million Americans, nearly all seniors, are affected by macular degeneration. Rodgers is among the 1.6 million within that group who have an advanced form of the disease. For Americans over the age of 55, macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness.
Like millions of other sufferers, Rodgers initially received a dismal prognosis: that there was nothing he could do and that he should just learn to live with the problem.
He suddenly found himself unable to drive, relying on his wife, Shirley, to take him everywhere. He became unable to see the faces of family and friends standing right in front of him. The only way to attempt to read a newspaper was to use bulky reading machines or magnifying devices, all of which he found tiresome and frustrating to use.
Implanted Telescope Magnifies Images
But Rodgers is starting to see the world differently now. He is part of a clinical trial for a device called the IMT, or implanted miniature telescope. The pea-sized device is being implanted in the eyes of nearly 200 patients with advanced macular degeneration around the country. VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies, a Saratoga, Calif.-based company, manufactures the IMT and is conducting the trial.
To implant the device, surgeons remove the lens of one eye and then replace it with the IMT. The tiny device works like a telescopic lens, enlarging the images that come into the eye.
"The advantage is it simply magnifies all objects so that it casts a larger image onto the retina, usually above and below and to both sides, of the central spot that has been destroyed by the macular generation," said Dr. Henry Hudson of Tucson, a retina specialist who is overseeing Rodgers and eight other patients in the trial.
The patient's brain must then learn to superimpose the magnified image from the eye with the IMT over the peripheral view from the unimplanted eye. This does not happen overnight.
Rodgers does eye exercises every day, practicing with large-print flashcards with his wife. He can now play solitaire for the first time in years, which also helps test his newly magnified vision.
"My old brain is pretty tough to try to penetrate and get the left eye to look far and the right one to look close," Rodgers chuckled. "But I'm working on it."
External Devices Can Mean Limited Activities
Until now, people suffering from macular degeneration generally had to rely on various external sight-enhancement devices. Glasses with a small telescope attached can help with distance, while basic magnifying glasses are for closer vision and reading. Large reading machines enlarge the print of a book or newspaper and transmit it onto a screen.