Learning to see with macular degeneration

August 28, 2009 3:38:05 PM PDT
Thirteen-million Americans have A-M-D -- age-related macular degeneration. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and vision impairment in people over 50.

There are two types of AMD: wet and dry. Wet AMD occurs abnormal blood vessels behind the retina start to grow under the macula, the central part of the retina. Those blood vessels then leak blood and fluid that cause the macula to bulge outward. Symptoms of wet AMD often develop quickly and include seeing straight lines as wavy. Dry AMD happens when light-sensitive cells in the macula break down and blur central vision. The most common symptom of dry AMD is slightly blurred vision. The condition develops slowly.

According the American Health Assistance Foundation, currently there is no treatment or cure for dry macular degeneration. However, taking a specific high-dose formula of vitamins and mineral supplements called the AREDS formula has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of progressing from intermediate to advanced or wet macular degeneration. Treatments for wet macular degeneration include drugs called angiogenesis inhibitors (Lucentis, Macugen); photocoagulation, which involves using a high-energy laser to destroy leaking blood vessels; and photodynamic therapy.

Now, researchers are studying a new kind of therapy for a-m-d. It can't reverse the damage, but it's helping patients get the most out of the vision they have left.

For Russell Delong, macular degeneration made his world Go black four years ago

"To start with, I was totally blind. I couldn't see nothing," he said.

He had surgery but his vision was still blurry.

"Everything looked like a real heavy fog ? real heavy. I couldn't see that tractor at all, I could just tell there's something there," Delong said.

After years of treatment, he thought he was out of options.

A recent study found the brain reorganizes itself to compensate for vision loss. That's the key to a new therapy that teaches patients a whole new way of seeing.

A computer maps areas of the retina damaged by macular degeneration, and those that are intact. Then it trains the patient to shift his vision, using the good retinal cells to see.

"So it's really a series of biofeedback training to get the patient to move in that positive way that we feel is going to be the most sensitive and give him or her the best vision," explained Susan Primo, director of Vision and Optical Services at Emory Eye Center in Atlanta.

Now with special glasses, Russell can read a magazine. Back on the farm, he can see things that used to be a blur.

"If I look at it and it's black, I turn my head a little and I see around the scar tissue there's a tractor. I can do everything out here, everything," Delong said.

At 74, Russell still has busy days ahead and wants to see every second.

"I'm goin' keep going," he said.

Researchers are currently testing the computer Therapy at Emory University. Smoking, obesity and race Play a role in your risk of developing macular degeneration. Whites are much more likely to lose vision from the disease than other races.

For more information about the treatment at Emory Eye Center, please contact: Emory Eye Center (404) 778-2020