Pediatric ophthalmologist, Retina imaging expert
9 min read
The total number of people with near or distant vision impairment reaches 2.2 billion worldwide. Of these, 43 million people are blind, and 295 million are suffering from moderate to severe visual impairment. Although the numbers are constantly changing as new research is conducted, the global burden of blindness and visual impairment remains a significant problem of humanity in the fight against which specialists combine their forces with AI technologies.
AI blindness prevention tools are being actively developed to transform the landscape of vision care in many ways. Eye care specialists use AI systems for screening and detecting diseases that lead to vision loss. AI-powered smart monitors assist specialists in finding proper contact lenses and glasses. In addition, many researches are held with the help of AI algorithms, as they are able to process vast amounts of data.
In this article, we will discuss different applications of AI in blindness prevention, specifically how artificial intelligence tools can empower eye care specialists and extend beyond the clinical setting.
Today’s conditions and risk factors of blindness you should pay attention to
Before talking about the developments in the AI sector toward blindness prevention, we would like to discuss the most common causes and risk factors of this impairment. Many health and lifestyle factors can influence the risk of vision loss. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, sun exposure, and poor nutrition can contribute to diseases that lead to vision loss.
In addition, there are many conditions that can lead to blindness if left with no proper treatment, among which are the following.
Age-related eye diseases
The global population is aging rapidly. The number of people aged 65 and over is projected to triple from 1 billion in 2020 to 2.1 billion in 2050. Considering this fact, age-related eye diseases have become a prominent cause of blindness. Such diseases as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataract, and glaucoma are more prevalent in older patients, and if left untreated, they can lead to fast and significant vision loss. Regular eye check-ups and timely interventions are crucial in managing these diseases and preventing severe visual impairment.
Besides AMD, there are a lot of age-related conditions which can be a red flag when examining the patient. Among these are macular holes, mactel, and vascular diseases, for example, central retinal vein occlusion (CRVO) and central retinal artery occlusion (CRAO). Detecting even one of these pathological conditions in the early stages of their development is crucial for preventing vision loss.
However, many eye care specialists sometimes don’t have enough resources to dedicate more time to analyzing patients’ images. Our recent survey detected that among more than 300 participating optometrists, 40% of them have more than 10 OCT exams per day. Meanwhile, 35% of eye care specialists have 5-10 OCT examinations per day. The greater the number of patients per day, the greater the likelihood that eye care specialists may miss some minor, rare, or early conditions.
Fortunately, nowadays, there are a lot of ways to empower the clinical workflow, and AI blindness prevention tools are gaining popularity. Artificial intelligence systems like Altris AI can analyze retinal images and other diagnostic data to detect early signs of age-related eye diseases. Altris AI platform, for example, can detect 70+ pathologies and pathological signs, including the ones, that refer to age-related diseases.
Altris AI platform allows eye care specialists to rely on its disease classification when diagnosing a patient. It detects all the most common age-related pathologies, such as AMD, mactel, and vascular diseases – CRVO, CRAO.
Diabetes and diabetic retinopathy
Diabetes and related conditions are also common causes of vision loss. In the United States, about 12% of all new cases of blindness are caused due to diabetes. Globally, diabetes is estimated to cause 4.8% of all blindness. In addition, the risk of blindness from diabetes increases with the duration of diabetes. People with untreated diabetes for years are 25 times more likely to be blind than people without diabetes.
The complication of diabetes, called Diabetic retinopathy (DR), affects the blood vessels of the retina and can lead to impaired vision or blindness. With the rising prevalence of diabetes worldwide, DR has become a significant problem. Early detection, proper control of diabetes, and regular eye exams are essential to prevent vision loss.
The American diabetes association (ADA) recommends that people with diabetes have an OCT scan of their eyes every year. This is because OCT can help to detect early signs of DR with high precision. In some cases, eye care specialists may recommend more frequent OCT scans. This may be the case if the patient has advanced diabetic retinopathy or a family history of diabetic retinopathy.
AI algorithms such as Altris AI can assist in detecting the pathological signs of diabetic retinopathy or diabetic macular edema. Our web platform differentiates certain pathological signs that indicate diabetes-related diseases. Among these are:
- Intraretinal fluid
- Subretinal fluid
- Hard exudates
- Hyperreflective foci
- Epiretinal fibrosis
Genetic and inherited conditions
Some patients are at a greater risk of developing visual impairment due to genetic factors or the inheritance of certain conditions. For example, retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited disease that affects the photoreceptor cells in the retina and gradually leads to night blindness and loss of peripheral vision. Genetic testing and counseling can help identify people at risk and provide early intervention.
Some genetic eye conditions, such as myopia, vitelliform dystrophy, or retinoschisis, can be detected in the early stages with the help of OCT examination and artificial intelligence systems. Altris AI platform can help eye care specialists in their daily practice and make eye care more accessible, allowing specialists to perform regular eye check-ups, and provide timely treatment of genetic conditions.
Current ways to prevent blindness with AI
As you can see, blindness risk factors encompass a wide range of conditions, pathologies, and circumstances that can significantly impact a patient’s health and increase the likelihood of severe visual impairment. Poorly managed age-related eye diseases, genetic and hereditary factors, and chronic health conditions can lead to eye-related complications, further elevating the risk of blindness.
In the following paragraphs, we will describe in detail the modern ways of using artificial intelligence to detect and prevent blindness: from AI-based retinal imaging for early detection of eye diseases to personalized treatment recommendations and remote patient monitoring.
AI for image interpretation
It is important to understand that the timely detection of eye diseases is key to the effective treatment of visual impairments. However, today we have an unfortunate tendency to diagnose severe forms of disease too late. A large-scale survey by Eyewire conducted in 2021 found that about 40% of people in the USA said they had not had an eye exam in more than a year, and 10% said they had not had one in more than five years.
In addition, recent research by the British Journal of Ophthalmology found that 25.3% of people in Europe over the age of 60 have early signs of AMD. In the UK, about 200 people a day are affected by a severe form of AMD (wet AMD), which can cause severe blindness.
These studies show us that while eye care specialists around the world are trying to treat as many patients as possible, unfortunately, many patients are going blind due to delays in diagnosis. However, using advanced AI-based image analysis systems can speed up the detection of warning signs, allowing you to reach more patients.
One of the advantages of AI for image analysis is its assistance in decision-making. Altris AI is a great example of how an image analysis system can help prevent blindness with AI. The platform allows eye care specialists to detect 74 retina pathologies and pathological signs, including risk conditions for vision loss, like AMD, Diabetic retinopathy, Vascular diseases of the retina, and others.
Diagnosing eye disease in children
Today, one of the most important AI blindness prevention research is focused on teaching artificial intelligence algorithms to detect retinopathy in premature infants. Retinopathy of prematurity is the main cause of childhood blindness in middle-income countries. Some researches show that around 50,000 children all over the world are blind due to the disease.
Unfortunately, experts’ forecasts show that these figures are likely to grow. Retinopathy of prematurity is becoming more and more common, especially in African countries. About 30% of children born in sub-Saharan Africa have this disease and, due to late detection and insufficient attention due to the lack of eye care specialists, can also go blind.
An artificial intelligence model developed by an international team of scientists from the UK, Brazil, Egypt, and the US, with support from leading healthcare institutions, is able to identify children who are at risk of blindness if left untreated. The team of scientists hopes that this AI system will make access to screening and monitoring of young patients more affordable in many regions with limited eye care services and few qualified eye care specialists.
AI monitors for eye strain control
Another interesting application of AI to prevent blindness is eye care monitors. They are planned to be used to avoid eye strain due to prolonged computer work. Such monitors will be programmed to monitor the user’s facial expressions, blinks, and eye movements. They will also be able to assess the level of light in the room, and artificial intelligence will automatically adjust the screen brightness and image contrast.
Since a huge number of the world’s population has switched to remote work since the pandemic and spends almost all day at the computer, such AI monitors are considered a huge help for users in preventing eye diseases that can lead to visual impairment.
AI to determine better glasses or contact lenses
In the field of developing and calculating suitable lenses, there are also a number of companies that have joined the development of AI tools. AI monitors will collect important information about the patient’s eye condition, analyze it, and prescribe suitable contact lenses or glasses.
In addition, these monitors will be able to analyze the patient’s medical history, including medical images, and create the most suitable treatment strategy to maximize visual acuity.
AI for studying the human eye
Today, AI is a promising tool for studying human eye tissue and developing new tools for diagnosing and treating eye diseases, including those that lead to vision loss. Artificial intelligence tools are used to analyze OCT images of the eye to detect changes that may indicate diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. AI is also used to predict the development of eye diseases based on genetic or risk factors. This is expected to help doctors identify people at risk of developing eye diseases at an early stage and prevent the progression of the disease.
Today AI blindness prevention tools are already developing by many leading companies and institutions, and some companies, like Altris AI, are already using the potential of artificial intelligence to provide early detection and diagnostic advice for eye care specialists. But it’s worth noting that AI tools are not capable of coming up with innovative solutions for blindness prevention.
Only in close cooperation with eye care specialists AI blindness prevention tools can help in many ways, like early detection, providing access to medical care in underserved regions, detecting minor or rare conditions, and allowing to focus on personalized care and treatment of patients.