Could Virtual Reality Cure Glaucoma?

According to a story published by STAT, a daredevil neuroscientist at Stanford University is utilizing the relatively new concept of virtual reality to solve an unsuspecting problem. Not only is he using virtual reality to gather data on and potentially treat fear and anxiety, but Andrew Huberman is testing his somewhat far-out hypothesis of using virtual reality to treat the eye condition glaucoma.

Glaucoma Explained

Glaucoma is an umbrella term that is used to describe a group of conditions involving the eye. These conditions are characterized by progressive damage to the optic nerve which also leads to a build up of pressure in the eye. If the damage is in the optic nerve (the part of the eye that transmits images to the brain) continues, it could lead to permanent vision loss. There are many types of glaucoma, and not all are necessarily rare. Researchers don’t exactly know what causes glaucoma, but there is speculation around the cause being from mutated genes or eye injuries. Symptoms of the condition(s) depend on the type, but it may usually begin with loss of peripheral vision. The current standard treatment for those with glaucoma is prescription eye drops. To learn more about this group of eye conditions, click here.

Huberman’s Hypothesis

Huberman has long been a risk taker. In the name of research, he’s gone to great depths and put his life at risk on many occasions. Among these occasions include swimming with sharks and climbing treacherous mountains without any sort of rope or protection. Now, however, Huberman is doing something perhaps even more far fetched: trying to find a cure for glaucoma by using virtual reality. He obviously has some big goals in mind.

“When the curtain goes down for me, I don’t want to look back on my career and say: ‘Oh, we did all this nice work in mice,” said Huberman. “I decided about six years ago that, unless I made a deliberate attempt to create a tool to cure blindness, a deliberate attempt to alleviate pathologic anxiety, it wasn’t going to happen the way it could happen.”

Why Glaucoma?

Huberman and his team published a paper in 2016 detailing the use of gene therapy and visual simulation in the treatment of visually impaired mice. The study found that only 5 percent of the neurons in the mice grew back. Though the percentage was somewhat low, it is notable that the study found that it was enough of a percentage to help the mice see better. The scientists measured this by seeing if the mice ran away from perceived threats.

Huberman is now applying the consequences of this research to humans in a clinical trial in which currently two people who have glaucoma are enrolled. It is expected to have more patients join the trial, as many are currently being screened for it and a third is expected to start the trial soon. Huberman’s goal is to have at least 200 patients enrolled in the trial. These 200 patients are to be those who have glaucoma but who have not yet completely lost their vision.

How It’s Done

When glaucoma patients enroll in the trial, Huberman and his team of researchers measure the damage and vision of each patient individually.

“If you have a hole in your neural retina that gives you a blank spot just X number of degrees, or this position off, the center of your visual field, we want to know that,” explained Huberman.

In this way, Huberman is allowed to customize the virtual reality screen for each individual patient based on what he finds from preliminary individualized data. He does this by putting flashing white spots in each patient’s field of vision.

But they aren’t just white dots. The virtual realities are based in art galleries that include empty frames on the walls. The patients are allowed to explore the galleries but the main element of the virtual reality are the flashing white dots, which frequently cross the screen.

Doctors and researchers have long tried to use visual simulation in the form of computer or TV screens to fix patients’ neurons, but to not much avail. The reason for this is that patients’ eyes are prone to wander, and therefore there is no way of seeing exactly where the visual simulation in the damaged eyes occur.

Huberman is more optimistic about his approach, because “you control their entire world and you know exactly where their eyes are,” he stated.

As for the trial, participants are given a virtual reality headset and sent home to use it five days a week for half an hour each session. The research team will observe progress at every six week mark.

Some Speculation

While this is surely an innovative and unique trial, it comes with the usual doubts. Dr. Coleman from UCLA says she just hopes that those who undergo the trial won’t become falsely hopeful that it will definitely work out. The trial is still new and is so far unproven.

Additionally, the current trial does not have a control group to compare it to right now. Huberman has noted, however, that he will develop one as he gets more preliminary data.

Finally, the trial assumes that what is effective in mice could be effective in humans as well, but this is often not the case. The data from their mouse study was definitely substantial, but “translating that in humans who have to physically go out and interact with the world, I think, is a whole other level,” said a scientist from Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Lotfi Merabet.

Huberman is aware of these potential setbacks, and is also all too aware of the high cost of this project. While the Glaucoma Research Foundation is providing enough seed money to fund Huberman’s trial, Huberman will need a lot more to keep it going.

All of this taken into account, there is something to be said about Huberman’s courage in undertaking his mission.

“The idea of testing early and then refining is much more appealing to me than people who are a little more afraid to take a risk,” noted Thomas Brunner, CEO of the Glaucoma Research Foundation. He also said that Huberman is “a risk-taker, which is something I admire.”

Not Done Yet

Not only is Huberman testing his hypothesis on virtual reality and glaucoma, but he is also utilizing virtual reality for one other experiment: one involving anxiety and fear.

After gathering real life footage from all over the world, from a “dungeon-like” elevator at Stanford University to a great white shark habitat in the Pacific Ocean, Huberman has gone to great lengths to develop the most realistic possible virtual realities to test.

The goal of this informal clinical trial is to eventually enroll up to 250 people, a few of which have been diagnosed with anxiety. While these volunteers enter the world of the virtual realities, their heart rate, sweating, breathing, pupil size, and body posture are all measured.

Huberman’s final virtual reality goal? To get footage that mimics the experience of being eaten by a shark.

To read more about Huberman’s fascinating research, click here.

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