Some time ago I had the opportunity to help visualize some research that is being done on glaucoma by the University Eye Clinic in Maastricht.
Someone suffering from glaucoma starts losing eyesight gradually from an increase in pressure in the eye that eventually damages the optic nerve.
The idea is that an increase in pressure in the eye puts the Retinal Ganglion Cells (RGCs) under a lot of stress and eventually kills them. This leads to hollowing out or ‘cupping’ of the optic nerve head and a decrease of signals from the retina, which causes a loss of eyesight.
Researchers know that the pressure in the eye plays a role in the damaging of the optic nerve, but how exactly this damage occurs is less clear. So to test what actually happens, the researchers at the University Eye Clinic built a setup to test what different kinds of stresses actually do to a Retinal Ganglion Cell: a RGC is placed on a special culture unit on top of a membrane that can be stretched in different directions.
Little channels that run through the device that the culture unit is on, make it possible to create a vacuum under the membrane which stretches it together with the placed RGCs. In real-time this stretch and release happens very rapidly.
To better visualize it, I made a 3D model (and animation) of the culture unit. Starting with a single part that shows the same RGC stretching mechanics as in the above images:
All kinds of shapes and sizes of culture units are put on the device, which makes it possible to simulate many different types of pressure on the RGCs. Here are a few snapshots from the animation of the full culture unit 3D model: