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MADISON, Wis. — When it comes to contact lenses, you pretty much get what you get. While on the eye, the structure of the lens stays pretty static, therefore providing a consistent level of magnification and focus. However, a research project at University of Wisconsin-Madison could change that in the near future, with a breakthrough coming from an unlucky source.
The elephantnose fish, a peculiar resident of African freshwater ecosystems, has long been thought by scientists to have poor vision.
"In fact, the visual capabilities of this fish are pretty poor," Andreas Reichenbach, neurophysiologist at University of Leipzig told Science Magazine. "But surprisingly, it's optimal for his environment. The fish swims in so-called black waters. It's pretty dark. And so the special structure of the retina of the fish enables the fish to see large moving objects more reliable than any other fish."
Its retina contains many reflective cup-like structures that take in a spectrum of light and boost those wavelengths which the fish needs to see.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Hongrui Jiang, Ph.D., leader of the UW-Madison research project, hopes to adapt the structure of the fish's retina into a miniscule light sensor mounted inside of a contact lens which would use an algorithm to adjust the lens shape accordingly, allowing the lens to adjust focus automatically in just a few milliseconds.
Such a device would be invaluable to sufferers of presbyopia, the farsightedness many experience as they age, when the eye's natural lens loses its elasticity. An auto-focusing lens would artificially correct this problem by performing the same function.
Photo credit: Kathryn Demott, NIH/NEI
Jiang's current design uses miniature solar cells to electronically stimulate the lens — made of water and silicon oil — based on information gleaned from the sensor and processed by the tiny electronic circuits in order to change the lens' shape.
Working prototypes are anywhere from five to 10 years away, but the research team at University of Wisconsin-Madison is optimistic about the potential consumer price once the lens is on the market.
"There’s a huge market for this, and with mass production, the cost is not likely to be a barrier," Jiang told the National Institutes of Health.
Jiang estimates the lenses won't cost much more than traditional contact lenses.
Sean Stoker is a journalism student at UVU interning for KSL.com. He runs a YouTube channel at QuestSeans.com. Follow him on Twitter @theroyalthey