Archive for the ‘eye’ Category

By Mo Costandi

It’s sometimes said that the eyes are windows into the soul, revealing deep emotions that we might otherwise want to hide. The eyes not only reflect what is happening in the brain but may also influence how we remember things and make decisions.

Our eyes are constantly moving, and while some of those movements are under conscious control, many of them occur subconsciously. When we read, for instance, we make a series of very quick eye movements called saccades that fixate rapidly on one word after another. When we enter a room, we make larger sweeping saccades as we gaze around. Then there are the small, involuntary eye movements we make as we walk, to compensate for the movement of our head and stabilise our view of the world. And, of course, our eyes dart around during the ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) phase of sleep.

What is now becoming clear is that some of our eye movements may actually reveal our thought process.

Research published last year shows that pupil dilation is linked to the degree of uncertainty during decision-making: if somebody is less sure about their decision, they feel heightened arousal, which causes the pupils to dilate. This change in the eye may also reveal what a decision-maker is about to say: one group of researchers, for example, found that watching for dilation made it possible to predict when a cautious person used to saying ‘no’ was about to make the tricky decision to say ‘yes’.

Watching the eyes can even help predict what number a person has in mind. Tobias Loetscher and his colleagues at the University of Zurich recruited 12 volunteers and tracked their eye movements while they reeled off a list of 40 numbers.

They found that the direction and size of the participants’ eye movements accurately predicted whether the number they were about to say was bigger or smaller than the previous one – and by how much. Each volunteer’s gaze shifted up and to the right just before they said a bigger number, and down and to the left before a smaller one. The bigger the shift from one side to the other, the bigger the difference between the numbers.

This suggests that we somehow link abstract number representations in the brain with movement in space. But the study does not tell us which comes first: whether thinking of a particular number causes changes in eye position, or whether the eye position influences our mental activity. In 2013, researchers in Sweden published evidence that it’s the latter that may be at work: eye movements may actually facilitate memory retrieval.

They recruited 24 students and asked each one to carefully examine a series of objects displayed to them in one corner of a computer screen. The participants were then told to listen to a series of statements about some of the objects they had seen, such as “The car was facing to the left” and asked to indicate as quickly as possible if each was true or false. Some participants were allowed to let their eyes roam about freely; others were asked to fix their gaze on a cross at the centre of the screen, or the corner where the object had appeared, for example.

The researchers found that those who were allowed to move their eyes spontaneously during recall performed significantly better than those who fixed on the cross. Interestingly, though, participants who were told to fix their gaze in the corner of the screen in which objects had appeared earlier performed better than those told to fix their gaze in another corner. This suggests that the more closely the participants’ eye movements during information encoding corresponded with those that occurred during retrieval of the information, the better they were at remembering the objects. Perhaps that’s because eye movements help us to recall the spatial relationships between objects in the environment at the time of encoding.

These eye movements can occur unconsciously. “When people are looking at scenes they have encountered before, their eyes are frequently drawn to information they have already seen, even when they have no conscious memory of it,” says Roger Johansson, a psychologist at Lund University who led the study.

Watching eye movements can also be used to nudge people’s decisions. One recent study showed – maybe worryingly – that eye-tracking can be exploited to influence the moral decisions we take.

Researchers asked participants complex moral questions such as “Can murder ever be justified?” and then displayed, on a computer screen, alternative answers (“sometimes justifiable” or “never justifiable”). By tracking the participants’ eye movements, and removing the two answer options immediately after a participant had spent a certain amount of time gazing at one of the two options, the researchers found that they could nudge the participants to provide that particular option as their answer.

“We didn’t give them any more information,” says neuroscientist Daniel Richardson of University College London, senior author of study. “We simply waited for their own decision-making processes to unfold and interrupted them at exactly the right point. We made them change their minds just by controlling when they made the decision.”

Richardson adds that successful salespeople may have some insight into this, and use it to be more persuasive with clients. “We think of persuasive people as good talkers, but maybe they’re also observing the decision-making process,” he says. “Maybe good salespeople can spot the exact moment you’re wavering towards a certain choice, and then offer you a discount or change their pitch.”

The ubiquity of eye-tracking apps for smartphones and other hand-held devices raises the possibility of altering people’s decision-making process remotely. “If you’re shopping online, they might bias your decision by offering free shipping at the moment you shift your gaze to a particular product.”

Thus, eye movements can both reflect and influence higher mental functions such as memory and decision-making, and betray our thoughts, beliefs, and desires. This knowledge may give us ways of improving our mental functions – but it also leaves us vulnerable to subtle manipulation by other people.

“The eyes are like a window into our thought processes, and we just don’t appreciate how much information might be leaking out of them,” says Richardson. “They could potentially reveal things that a person might want to suppress, such as implicit racial bias.”

“I can see eye-tracking apps being used for, say, supportive technologies that figure out what phone function you need and then help out,” he adds, “but if they’re left on all the time they could be used to track all sorts of other things. This would provide much richer information, and raises the possibility of unwittingly sharing our thoughts with others.”

By Helen Thomson

“When the tide came in, these kids started swimming. But not like I had seen before. They were more underwater than above water, they had their eyes wide open – they were like little dolphins.”

Deep in the island archipelagos on the Andaman Sea, and along the west coast of Thailand live small tribes called the Moken people, also known as sea-nomads. Their children spend much of their day in the sea, diving for food. They are uniquely adapted to this job – because they can see underwater. And it turns out that with a little practice, their unique vision might be accessible to any young person.

In 1999, Anna Gislen at the University of Lund, in Sweden was investigating different aspects of vision, when a colleague suggested that she might be interested in studying the unique characteristics of the Moken tribe. “I’d been sitting in a dark lab for three months, so I thought, ‘yeah, why not go to Asia instead’,” says Gislen.

Gislen and her six-year old daughter travelled to Thailand and integrated themselves within the Moken communities, who mostly lived on houses sat upon poles. When the tide came in, the Moken children splashed around in the water, diving down to pick up food that lay metres below what Gislen or her daughter could see. “They had their eyes wide open, fishing for clams, shells and sea cucumbers, with no problem at all,” she says.

Gislen set up an experiment to test just how good the children’s underwater vision really was. The kids were excited about joining in, says Gislen, “they thought it was just a fun game.”

The kids had to dive underwater and place their heads onto a panel. From there they could see a card displaying either vertical or horizontal lines. Once they had stared at the card, they came back to the surface to report which direction the lines travelled. Each time they dived down, the lines would get thinner, making the task harder. It turned out that the Moken children were able to see twice as well as European children who performed the same experiment at a later date.

What was going on? To see clearly above land, you need to be able to refract light that enters the eye onto the retina. The retina sits at the back of the eye and contains specialised cells, which convert the light signals into electrical signals that the brain interprets as images.

Light is refracted when it enters the human eye because the outer cornea contains water, which makes it slightly denser than the air outside the eye. An internal lens refracts the light even further.

When the eye is immersed in water, which has about the same density as the cornea, we lose the refractive power of the cornea, which is why the image becomes severely blurred.

Gislen figured that in order for the Moken children to see clearly underwater, they must have either picked up some adaption that fundamentally changed the way their eyes worked, or they had learned to use their eyes differently under water.

She thought the first theory was unlikely, because a fundamental change to the eye would probably mean the kids wouldn’t be able to see well above water. A simple eye test proved this to be true – the Moken children could see just as well above water as European children of a similar age.

It had to be some kind of manipulation of the eye itself, thought Gislen. There are two ways in which you can theoretically improve your vision underwater. You can change the shape of the lens – which is called accommodation – or you can make the pupil smaller, thereby increasing the depth of field.

Their pupil size was easy to measure – and revealed that they can constrict their pupils to the maximum known limit of human performance. But this alone couldn’t fully explain the degree to which their sight improved. This led Gislen to believe that accommodation of the lens was also involved.

“We had to make a mathematical calculation to work out how much the lens was accommodating in order for them to see as far as they could,” says Gislen. This showed that the children had to be able to accommodate to a far greater degree than you would expect to see underwater.

“Normally when you go underwater, everything is so blurry that the eye doesn’t even try to accommodate, it’s not a normal reflex,” says Gislen. “But the Moken children are able to do both – they can make their pupils smaller and change their lens shape. Seals and dolphins have a similar adaptation.”

Gislen was able to test a few Moken adults in the same way. They showed no unusual underwater vision or accommodation – perhaps explaining why the adults in the tribe caught most of their food by spear fishing above the surface. “When we age, our lenses become less flexible, so it makes sense that the adults lose the ability to accommodate underwater,” says Gislen.

Gislen wondered whether the Moken children had a genetic anomaly to thank for their ability to see underwater or whether it was just down to practice. To find out, she asked a group of European children on holiday in Thailand, and a group of children in Sweden to take part in training sessions, in which they dived underwater and tried to work out the direction of lines on a card. After 11 sessions across one month, both groups had attained the same underwater acuity as the Moken children.

“It was different for each child, but at some point their vision would just suddenly improve,” says Gislen. “I asked them whether they were doing anything different and they said, ‘No, I can just see better now’.”

She did notice, however, that the European kids would experience red eyes, irritated by the salt in the water, whereas the Moken children appeared to have no such problem. “So perhaps there is some adaptation there that allows them to dive down 30 times without any irritation,” she says.

Gislen recently returned to Thailand to visit the Moken tribes, but things had changed dramatically. In 2004, a tsunami created by a giant earthquake within the Indian Ocean destroyed much of the Moken’s homeland. Since then, the Thai government has worked hard to move them onto the land, building homes that are further inland and employing members of the tribe to work in the National Park. “It’s difficult,” says Gislen. “You want to help keep people safe and give them the best parts of modern culture, but in doing so they lose their own culture.”

In unpublished work, Gislen tested the same kids that were in her original experiment. The Moken children, now in their late teens, were still able to see clearly underwater. She wasn’t able to test many adults as they were too shy, but she is certain that they would have lost the ability to see underwater as they got older. “The adult eye just isn’t capable of that amount of accommodation,” she says.

Unfortunately, the children in Gislen’s experiments may be the last of the tribe to possess the ability to see so clearly underwater. “They just don’t spend as much time in the sea anymore,” she says, “so I doubt that any of the children that grow up these days in the tribe have this extraordinary vision.”

by Elizabeth Preston

Amputees often feel eerie sensations from their missing limbs. These “phantom limb” feelings can include pain, itching, tingling, or even a sense of trying to pick something up. Patients who lose an eye may have similar symptoms—with the addition of actual phantoms.

Phantom eye syndrome (PES) had been studied in the past, but University of Liverpool psychologist Laura Hope-Stone and her colleagues recently conducted the largest study of PES specifically in patients who’d lost an eye to cancer.

The researchers sent surveys to 239 patients who’d been treated for uveal melanoma at the Liverpool Ocular Oncology Centre. All of these patients had had one eye surgically removed. Some of their surgeries were only 4 months in the past; others had taken place almost 4 and a half years earlier. Three-quarters of the patients returned the surveys, sharing details about how they were doing in their new monocular lives.

Sixty percent of respondents said they had symptoms of phantom eye syndrome. These symptoms included pain, visual sensations, or the impression of actually seeing with the missing eye.

Patients with visual symptoms most often saw simple shapes and colors. But some people reported more distinct images, “for example, resembling wallpaper, a kaleidoscope, or fireworks, or even specific scenes and people,” the authors write.

Then there were the ghosts.

Some people said they had seen strangers haunting their fields of vision, as in these survey responses:

A survey isn’t a perfect way to measure how common PES is overall. But Hope-Stone says there were enough survey responses to produce helpful data for doctors who treat patients with eye cancer.

“We can now tell whether certain kinds of patients are more likely to have phantom symptoms,” she says. For example, “PES is more common in younger patients, and having pain in the non-existent eye is more likely in patients who are anxious and depressed, although we don’t know why.”

About a fifth of PES patients, understandably, said they were disturbed by their symptoms. A similar number found them “pleasurable,” Hope-Stone says.

Doctors aren’t sure exactly why phantom eye syndrome occurs. Since different patients have different symptoms, Hope-Stone says, “I suspect that…there may be a range of causes.”

For that matter, phantom limbs are still mysterious to doctors too. “Human perception is a complex process,” Hope-Stone explains. Even when our sensory organs are gone—the vision receptors in our eyes, the pain and touch receptors in our hands—the nerves and brain areas that used to talk to those organs keep working just fine. “Interactions between [these systems] may contribute to phantom sensations,” she says, although “the exact mechanisms are unclear.”

Even if they don’t know why it happens, doctors can warn their patients about the kinds of symptoms they’re likely to experience—and the ghosts they might see.

Phantom Eye Patients See and Feel with Missing Eyeballs

The reverse-wiring of the eyeball has long been a mystery, but new research shows a remarkable structural purpose: increasing and sharpening our color vision.

by Erez Ribak, at the Israel Institute of Technology

The human eye is optimised to have good colour vision at day and high sensitivity at night. But until recently it seemed as if the cells in the retina were wired the wrong way round, with light travelling through a mass of neurons before it reaches the light-detecting rod and cone cells. New research presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society has uncovered a remarkable vision-enhancing function for this puzzling structure.

About a century ago, the fine structure of the retina was discovered. The retina is the light-sensitive part of the eye, lining the inside of the eyeball. The back of the retina contains cones to sense the colours red, green and blue. Spread among the cones are rods, which are much more light-sensitive than cones, but which are colour-blind.

Before arriving at the cones and rods, light must traverse the full thickness of the retina, with its layers of neurons and cell nuclei. These neurons process the image information and transmit it to the brain, but until recently it has not been clear why these cells lie in front of the cones and rods, not behind them. This is a long-standing puzzle, even more so since the same structure, of neurons before light detectors, exists in all vertebrates, showing evolutionary stability.

Researchers in Leipzig found that glial cells, which also span the retinal depth and connect to the cones, have an interesting attribute. These cells are essential for metabolism, but they are also denser than other cells in the retina. In the transparent retina, this higher density (and corresponding refractive index) means that glial cells can guide light, just like fibre-optic cables.

n view of this, my colleague Amichai Labin and I built a model of the retina, and showed that the directional of glial cells helps increase the clarity of human vision. But we also noticed something rather curious: the colours that best passed through the glial cells were green to red, which the eye needs most for daytime vision. The eye usually receives too much blue—and thus has fewer blue-sensitive cones.

Further computer simulations showed that green and red are concentrated five to ten times more by the glial cells, and into their respective cones, than blue light. Instead, excess blue light gets scattered to the surrounding rods.

This surprising result of the simulation now needed an experimental proof. With colleagues at the Technion Medical School, we tested how light crosses guinea pig retinas. Like humans, these animals are active during the day and their retinal structure has been well-characterised, which allowed us to simulate their eyes just as we had done for humans. Then we passed light through their retinas and, at the same time, scanned them with a microscope in three dimensions. This we did for 27 colours in the visible spectrum.

The result was easy to notice: in each layer of the retina we saw that the light was not scattered evenly, but concentrated in a few spots. These spots were continued from layer to layer, thus creating elongated columns of light leading from the entrance of the retina down to the cones at the detection layer. Light was concentrated in these columns up to ten times, compared to the average intensity.

Even more interesting was the fact that the colours that were best guided by the glial cells matched nicely with the colours of the cones. The cones are not as sensitive as the rods, so this additional light allowed them to function better—even under lower light levels. Meanwhile, the bluer light, that was not well-captured in the glial cells, was scattered onto the rods in its vicinity.

These results mean that the retina of the eye has been optimised so that the sizes and densities of glial cells match the colours to which the eye is sensitive (which is in itself an optimisation process suited to our needs). This optimisation is such that colour vision during the day is enhanced, while night-time vision suffers very little. The effect also works best when the pupils are contracted at high illumination, further adding to the clarity of our colour vision.


The newest addition to human anatomy is just 15 microns thick, but its discovery will make eye surgery safer and simpler. Harminder Dua, a professor at the University of Nottingham, recently found a new layer in the human cornea, and he’s calling it Dua’s layer.

Dua’s layer sits at the back of the cornea, which previously had only five known layers. Dua and his colleagues discovered the new body part by injecting air into the corneas of eyes that had been donated for research and using an electron microscope to scan each separated layer.

The researchers now believe that a tear in Dua’s layer is the cause of corneal hydrops, a disorder that leads to fluid buildup in the cornea. According to Dua, knowledge of the new layer could dramatically improve outcomes for patients undergoing corneal grafts and transplants.

“This is a major discovery that will mean that ophthalmology textbooks will literally need to be re-written,” Dua says. “From a clinical perspective, there are many diseases that affect the back of the cornea which clinicians across the world are already beginning to relate to the presence, absence or tear in this layer.”

The study appears in the journal Ophthalmology.