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Therapeutic Glasses Aid Care of Stroke, Mental Disorders

Noted Optometrist Says Changes in Light on Retina Alters Brain Activity

Therapeutic eyeglasses can “directly alter brain activity” and positively influence care of patients who suffer stroke, psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression, head injury, effects of long COVID, and other neurological conditions, said noted retina processing optometrist Deborah Zelinsky OD.

Speaking virtually at the 7th International Conference on Neurological Disorders and Stroke, held in the spring of 2022, Dr. Zelinsky said stimulating the retina by using individualized lenses to vary the light passing through them activates specific brain pathways and contributes to early intervention in a neurological patient’s rehabilitation.

Greater understanding of how the retina, especially the peripheral retina, impacts key structures of the brain could help decrease the overall public health burden that stroke and other mental problems pose for both the United States and global economies, Dr. Zelinsky said. For example, psychiatric conditions account for nearly 11 percent of the disease burden worldwide, she told conference participants.

“The retina serves as a critical component of the entire central nervous system. It acts as a primary portal for information to the brain. Environmental information in the form of light passes through the retina and converts into electrical signals that propagate through neurons and interact with major brain structures,” explained  Dr. Zelinsky, 

Retinal signals influence not just the visual cortex but other, significant regions of the brain as well, like the limbic system, the cerebellum, mid-brain, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem. “The implication is that any disruption to the functioning of retinal cells can have long-term impact on basic physical, physiological, and even psychological processes regulated by the brain. These basic processes affect motor control, posture, emotion, perception, and conscious decision-making abilities, among others,” Dr. Zelinsky said.

Dr. Zelinsky was invited to present at the stroke conference because of her long-time, successful work as founder of the Northbrook, Illinois-based Mind-Eye Institute, where she is also executive director of research. The Institute has gained international attention for its advanced testing and unique approach to helping patients whose visual processing either has been disrupted by stroke and other neurological disorders or has never fully developed, resulting in learning deficiencies such as dyslexia, autism spectrum, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Using highly individualized, therapeutic glasses, lenses, prisms, and filters, we are able to stimulate the retina by manipulating the amount, intensity, and angle of light that it receives. In so doing, we can oftentimes maximize a person’s visual processing capabilities, create a stable balance between hearing and eyesight localization, and enhance patient perception of the surrounding environment,” Dr. Zelinsky explained.

Mental illnesses are frequently associated with disruptions in visual and auditory processing systems. “Unfortunately, standard eye and hearing examinations normally fail to evaluate for proper integration of eyesight and hearing. Also left untested is how well a person’s peripheral eyesight is functioning,” Dr. Zelinsky stated.

A standard eye exam focuses on the clarity (20/20) of a person’s central eyesight when conscious attention is directed to a specific object. But the peripheral retina is what sends the brain both image forming and non-image forming information. Image forming signals from the periphery (corner of the eye) provide a person with necessary awareness of his or her surrounding environment. Non-image forming signals link directly with brain processing and affect body systems running automatically in the background like posture, metabolism, mood, even a person’s fight-or-flight mode.

“When peripheral eyesight is not functioning properly, it can be a contributing factor in learning problems and mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It  also can interfere with the successful rehabilitation of a patient who suffers a stroke or other neurological disorder, Dr. Zelinsky said. 

She emphasized that assessment of the retinal processing “zeroes in” on what is happening to a patient neurologically. “The latest research shows retinal degeneration is a reflection of, and parallels, degeneration in the brain.”

Dr. Zelinsky concluded her presentation by calling on optometrists and other health professionals to engage in 21st century eye care. “Through retinal neuromodulation using light, we can make positive changes to the brain. As an example, 85 percent of high blood pressure cases have no known cause. Yet, changes in light on the retina directly affect the central nervous system and, therefore, logically, could have a beneficial effect on blood pressure as well.”

She noted: “In the distant future, optometrists trained in advanced retinal sciences may become the professionals of choice for diagnosis of some systemic diseases.”