MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
One in four Americans suffers from nearsightedness. And things are worse overseas, especially in some parts of Asia. In Singapore and Taiwan, for example, three in four young adults are nearsighted. Genetics is one cause, but a child who is prone to nearsightedness can exaggerate the problem as the vision gets worse.
Now there's research that suggests eye drops can actually help nearsightedness in kids. We're joined by Dr. Sydney Spiesel of the Yale Medical School. He writes the Medical Examiner column for the online magazine Slate, and he is a practicing pediatrician. Syd, welcome back.
Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Pediatrician; Medical writer, Slate.com): Thank you. Always nice to be here.
CHADWICK: So let's just get a scope of the problem first. Exactly what is nearsightedness?
Dr. SPIESEL: People who are nearsighted see things close more clearly than they see things at a distance. You can get the same effect if you have normal vision and you just borrow some of his reading glasses - which are essentially magnifying glasses - and put them on. You'll see that vision at a distance feels out of focus, vision up close, you can get much closer, and things are quite clearer up close.
CHADWICK: So there's been a study done on some children in Singapore on their nearsightedness. What did they discover?
Dr. SPIESEL: Well, it's a great study. They took 400 kids and they divided them into two groups. One group got these eye drops only in one eye, and the other group got eye drops that didn't have the active ingredient in only - in one eye. And they just tracked them over two years, actually. It was a two-year period. And at the end of the two years, the kids who got the eye drops containing the active ingredient - which is atropine - they had no progression, no progression at all of their nearsightedness.
And the kids who got the placebo eye drops - or had no eye drops at all in the other eye - it did progress very considerably. Their nearsightedness did progress.
CHADWICK: So this seems to be a very, very effective remedy, but how long would a child need to go on with this?
Dr. SPIESEL: We have no idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SPIESEL: That's the problem. It's one of the problems. What happens after you stop putting eye drops in? Did the eyes start developing nearsightedness, or what? It's unclear. And that's why more research has to be done. But it's incredibly exciting, this idea that we can just stop the progress of nearsightedness.
CHADWICK: You know, atropine is a drug I've at least heard of before - in what context? What it's normally used for, and what are the side effects?
Dr. SPIESEL: Mostly, this is a drug - a very old drug. It comes from the deadly nightshade plant, which is also called the belladonna plant. It's called belladonna because women used to use atropine eye drops made from this plant to dilate the eyes.
CHADWICK: So people actually have been using atropine in their eyes for quite some time?
Dr. SPIESEL: About 300 years, yeah.
CHADWICK: So where is this research going now, Syd?
Dr. SPIESEL: Well, I'm sure that we're going to find out what is the right amount of atropine to you use, how long it needs to be used. It - probably because of the effect of causing glare and causing some difficulty in close reading - we'll have to correct for that - the kids who are going to get this treatment will probably wind up wearing bifocals, actually, so they can see clearly up close in spite of the fact that they've got a little atropine in their eyes.
What they used in Singapore were they gave them those photochromic glasses that become dark in bright light.
CHADWICK: Sid, thank you. That's expert opinion from Dr. Sydney Spiesel of the Yale Medical School. You can read his Medical Examiner column at Slate.com. Syd, we'll talk to you again later.
Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you. Bye, bye.
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