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Way in Which Light Activates Retina Can Affect Heart Health

Mind-Eye Institute Optometrist Addresses Cardiologists in Amsterdam

How light activates the retina can affect metabolism and the cardiovascular system, says Deborah Zelinsky O.D., a Chicago-area optometrist, who presented this summer at the International Conference on Neurology, Neurosurgery and Stroke in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The body’s internal circadian system, which regulates many risk factors affecting the myocardium (the heart muscle), is susceptible to external environmental stimuli, and “one of the controllable external stimuli is lighting,” she told meeting participants.

“When light enters the eye, signals travel through two systems: the visual, which registers external information, and the non-image-forming, which registers internal information,’ Dr. Zelinsky explained during her presentation. “The retina is the part of the brain that serves as an interface between these internal and external signaling systems. All body systems, including cardiopulmonary, musculoskeletal, endocrine, psychiatric, neurologic, respiratory, hematologic and gastrointestinal, connect in some way with the eye.”

Founder and research director of the Mind-Eye Institute (https://mindeye.com) in Northbrook, Ill., Dr. Zelinsky was invited to present for the neuro-cardiology track at the Amsterdam conference because of her understanding of how changes in light on the retina can impact brain function and the nervous system. Her ground-breaking clinical successes and research in neuro-optometric rehabilitation have revolutionized scientific thinking about how the retina serves as a two-way portal, “transferring environmental signals from outside to inside and vice versa, while the mind and body continually adapt to sensory changes.”

Dr. Zelinsky’s studies in novel uses of retinal stimulation have been described in publications and courses worldwide. She developed the Z-Bell Test℠, a simple, but revolutionary, method of checking a patient’s overall integration of visual processing with listening. The test has changed the lives of both pediatric and adult patients by allowing Dr. Zelinsky and her team to prescribe eyeglasses that normalize the balance between central and peripheral receptors in the retina, while improving the connection between eyes and ears.

“Using the proper mix of filters, lenses and/or prisms, we can prescribe eyeglasses – ‘Brainwear’ — that readjust a patient’s visual processing and eye-ear integration,” Dr. Zelinsky explains. “Changes in luminance on the eye affect how the brain interprets and reacts to information about the environment and can impact a person’s spatial awareness, body movement and selective attention to sound.”

Calling the retina “an overlooked part of the central nervous system,” she told participants at the Amsterdam meeting that “modification of retinal inputs simultaneously affects body posture and biochemistry, as well as one’s spatial awareness and perception of environment.”

Although “optometry may seem an unusual place to consider cardiovascular change,” the optometric field has advanced to a much greater understanding of the crucial role of the retina – and peripheral eyesight – on mind and body, Dr. Zelinsky reported at the conference.

Peripheral eyesight affects physical reactions, such as muscle tension, heart rate and adrenaline level as well as mental responses, such as attention, concentration and awareness of surroundings, she says.

As early as the 1920s, A.M. Skeffington, considered the “father of neuro-developmental optometry,” noted that “sharpening central eyesight often distorted peripheral eyesight” and that “clarity alone was not necessarily the optimal endpoint,” Dr. Zelinsky states. “He was an optometrist ahead of his time.”

In fact, “brain” eyeglasses that Dr. Zelinsky prescribed for a 16-year-old girl with multiple hospitalizations due to postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS) “normalized the girl’s heart rate and helped her avoid a pacemaker implant,” she said during the conference.

POTS is a condition that causes the heart rate to jump and blood pressure to drop when a person changes position, particularly going from a sitting to standing position. The normal regulation isn’t functioning properly.

The prescribed lenses modified the way light was dispersed across the teenage patient’s retina, especially the peripheral retina, says Dr. Zelinsky, who has presented this and similar cases at other major medical and professional assemblies, including the International Conference on Clinical Research: Dermatology, Ophthalmology and Cardiology.

After wearing her new glasses, the girl’s hydration improved, her migraine headaches stopped, her heart’s volume loading stabilized and her fainting spells ended, Dr. Zelinsky says. Nothing else had changed in the patient’s health care other than the prescribed eyeglasses.

“We are learning that stimulating the retina by varying the angle and frequency of light can impact circadian rhythm, as well as change body temperature and melatonin levels,” Dr. Zelinsky adds. “The circadian system has a direct connection to the retina via a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which serves as a master regulator of circadian function.” 

“In the future, scientists may learn more about taking advantage of this connection between brain and the cardiovascular system in treating heart problems. Because the retina is a part of the brain, we can customize eyeglasses that change the way light enters the retina, thereby stimulating the brain’s non-image-forming retinal pathways and enhancing circadian function,” Dr. Zelinsky reports.

Emerging research supports Dr. Zelinsky’s work.

Authors of a study published in November 2018 in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, for example, report that a person’s exposure to non-carcinogenic blue light positively impacts cardiovascular risk markers by lowering a blood pressure, reducing arterial stiffness and enhancing relaxation of blood vessels. The decrease in blood pressure is like what has been achieved in clinical trials using blood-pressure-lowering medications, the scientists state.

Other evidence of the relationship between brain and cardiovascular system is the demonstrated risk of neurocognitive decline in patients with chronic vascular and congenital heart disease, Dr. Zelinsky says.

She also suggests that the use of “specific frequencies of ambient lighting during carefully selected times in either the home or institutional settings” could prove a “novel approach” to preventive and therapeutic cardiovascular health – a contention underscored by scientists like Anjali Joseph Ph.D. of The Center for Health Design.

Joseph wrote that “light impacts human health and performance by enabling performance of visual tasks, controlling the body’s circadian system, affecting mood and perception, and by enabling critical chemical reactions in the body.”

At the Mind-Eye Institute, Dr. Zelinsky is using therapeutic eyeglasses, lenses and other optometric interventions to help patients redevelop visual skills during recovery from debilitating, life-altering symptoms of brain injuries or develop skills to overcome learning problems.

“We must Leave 20/20 in the 20th Century by revolutionizing the way eye examinations are performed. Using our advanced, 21st century knowledge and the state-of-art, computerized technology now available, we can help people more than ever before. That technology was non-existent in 1862 when 20/20 eyesight testing and standards were originally introduced,” concludes Dr. Zelinsky.

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