You may have heard of someone getting an “eye transplant,” but what does that mean? It does not mean the person came home with a new set of eyes. There is currently no way to transplant an entire eye. Ophthalmologists can, however, transplant a cornea. When someone says they are getting an “eye transplant,” they are most likely receiving a donor cornea, which is the clear front part of the eye that helps focus light so that you can see.

Why is it impossible to transplant a whole eye?

Our eyes are sort of like cameras. They capture images, but it is our brain that processes and sees the image. Therefore, it is crucial that our eyes remain connected to our brains by the optic nerve, which sends visual signals from the eye to the brain, where they are interpreted as images.

The optic nerve is only between 1.3 and 2.2 inches long and less than one-fifth of an inch wide at its widest point, but despite its small size, it is made up of more than a million tiny nerve fibers. If these nerves are cut, they cannot be reconnected. Surgeons cannot transplant a whole eye because even if they could implant the eye into the socket, the eye still would not be able to transmit signals to the brain through the optic nerve, and thus the patient would not be able to see.

Related: Refractive Lense Exchange

Corneal Transplants

Corneal transplantation, on the other hand, is entirely possible, and the concept itself is nothing new. The procedure is more than a century old, though of course it has been modernized as medical technology has advanced.

A cornea that is scarred or swollen can cause blurred vision or glare. If your cornea cannot be healed or repaired, your ophthalmologist may recommend a corneal transplant. Corneal transplants allow patients to regain good vision after their cornea is injured or affected by disease. During the procedure, the damaged or unhealthy cornea is removed and replaced with clear donor corneal tissue.

Related article: Keratoconus and Intacs

Other Eye Related Transplantations

Corneal transplants are the most common type of eye related transplantation, but there are other types as well. For example, surgeons have successfully performed eyelash transplantation. However, the procedure is risky and is not recommended as a cosmetic procedure. Perhaps even more impressive is an example from 2010 when a group of French doctors announced that they had successfully transplanted eyelids and tear ducts for a man suffering from a genetic disorder. The possibilities for eye-related transplantations continue to grow as doctors explore innovative technologies and treatment options. However, whole eye transplants will probably not be the next advancement.

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