When Donald Miller wanted a better view inside the human eye, he looked to the heavens for his answer.
There he found adaptive optics, a technology developed by astronomers that improves what they see through their telescopes by correcting for distortions in the atmosphere. The human eye, like outer space, has similar defects that affect what individuals see looking out and what ophthalmologists see looking in.
Knowing that, Miller is creating a computer-driven retinal imaging camera. “We warp the mirror surface so it’s opposite in shape [from the eye] and the distorted wave front reflects on the mirror’s surface and takes out the distortion,” he says.
Miller began his work after graduating in 1988 with a physics degree. He earned his Ph.D. in optical physics from the University of Rochester while working at the university’s Institute of Optics. He was part of the team that developed the first retinal imaging camera in the mid-1990s and made the first observations of living cells at the back of the eye.
Now at the University of Indiana, Miller and his team have perfected their own version of the retinal camera—one of four in the world—and taken it to the next step: imaging. Seeing the retina clearly is one thing, but to image its individual layers increases the potential to prevent blinding diseases like glaucoma.
“The hope is to use that information at this microscopic level to assess the health of the eye or how well treatment is performing,” Miller says.
He’s working now to refine the camera, which costs about $200,000, to include a new technology with the capacity to photograph slices of the retina that are less than 10 microns thick. At that level of minutiae, the future looks very bright.