• MIT’s researchers from Media Lab have finally developed a commercially viable prototype product that can detect cataract at initial stage. A small plastic device clips onto an iPhone or any low end Smartphone and provides diagnosis in less than 5 minutes. The device is a result of two technologies CATRA and NETRA, which were developed at MIT by the same team. A paper explaining the technology, setup and validation studies, and user studies is all set to be presented at SIGGRAPH, the annual computer-graphics conference that will be held in Vancouver from August 7-11. Expectations are high amongst the ophthalmologists all around the world as the technology has won $300,000 first prize the Vodafone Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project Award in April 2011.

    Around 40% of all the causes that account to blindness are the result of cataract. Unfortunately, maximum people get to know that they suffer from cataract only when it has progressed onto a later stage and becomes difficult to treat. The present methods to detect cataract use visual acuity tests. To conduct these tests, there is a need of highly trained ophthalmologists along with expensive equipments. In places like India and sub-Saharan Africa, where majority of the cataract cases are found in the world, there is a severe shortage of trained doctors and lack of funds for other expensive tools required to set up a diagnostic centers. This is where the novel technology promises to deliver.

    #-Link-Snipped-#The device costs only $4.99 and the price seems negligible when compared to the existing cataract detection techniques that cost somewhere around $1500. Appointment charges of $5 to $200 per visit again add to patients wows. This inexpensive and simple to use mobile diagnostic device is a result of application of evolutionary approach to the already developed technology called as Near-Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment or simply NETRA. Along with NETRA, another technology developed by the same researchers is put to good use, called as CATRA.

    The test is completed in mere 2 to 5 minutes. In earlier types of tests, doctor sees the light reflected by the lens and gives his opinion based on the same. On the other hand, CATRA is all about the light passing through the lens. Earlier, the patient was a passive subject, having absolutely no role in the test. But the MIT researchers have made the new test procedure to follow a more patient feedback protocol. Now, the patient reports whether a point of light directed at his eye remains steady, dims or disappears.

    The test is very simple and can be conducted even by an untrained person. An iPhone (or any other Smartphone) preloaded with the NETRA software is what one needs along with the diagnostic device to carry out the inspection for cataract. What one needs to do is simply hold the device closer to eye and look into it. Then, adjust the two patterns until they overlap using the mobile’s keypad. The procedure is repeated several times by holding the device so that the pattern appears at different angles. The device scans a beam of light and uses rays that are aligned perfectly. Due to which, all the beams are focused to the same point by the eye lens on the fovea. Fovea is the area of retina that allows for maximum acuity of vision. The moving beam of light appears as a single stationary point to the patient. This point blurs or disappears whenever a cataract is encountered. In few minutes, the software computes the information and provides data, which will help a doctor to prepare a prescription for the patient.

    According to Ramesh Raskar, the NEC Career Development Associate Professor of Computer and Communications and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group, the device is more like radar for human eye. The CATRA system sweeps a beam of light across eye and diagnoses cloudy patches on the lens. These patches are nothing but cataract. Nowadays, standard test for cataracts assign a score on a scale from 1 to 4. This is the degree of severity of the cataract in the lens. The CATRA/NETRA enabled device provides a large amount of extra information to the doctors at no extra effort and cost. The device gives detailed information to the software and with the help of it, a map size, shape and density of cataracts is displayed on the phone screen.

    This will help the doctors to take decision with more factual data. Earlier tests equipped doctors only to take decision of removing or keeping the lens. Now with more data and visual display of the cataract, they will be able to diagnose the severity of the cataract to a greater accuracy. Thus, they can now even advise the patient to take corrective lens treatment instead of directly going under knife to remove the lens.

    The technology is already being hailed as one to watch out for in immediate future. It has also won MIT’s IDEAS and Global Challenge contest and was featured in the TEDxBoston event. It will be of immense use in developing countries to detect cataract. The researchers plan to launch it commercially by the year end. A#-Link-Snipped-# to monitor Glaucoma, another major cause leading to blindness, surely proves the maxim: “Prevention is better than Cure!”

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