Myopia is the commonest ocular abnormality but as a research topic remains at the margins of mainstream ophthalmology. The concept that most myopes fall into the category of 'physiological myopia' undoubtedly contributes to this position. Yet detailed analysis of epidemiological data linking myopia with a range of ocular pathologies from glaucoma to retinal detachment demonstrates statistically significant disease association in the 0 to -6 D range of 'physiological myopia'. The calculated risks from myopia are comparable to those between hypertension, smoking and cardiovascular disease. In the case of myopic maculopathy and retinal detachment the risks are an order of magnitude greater. This finding highlights the potential benefits of interventions that can limit or prevent myopia progression. Our understanding of the regulatory processes that guide an eye to emmetropia and, conversely how the failure of such mechanisms can lead to refractive errors, is certainly incomplete but has grown enormously in the last few decades. Animal studies, observational clinical studies and more recently randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that the retinal image can influence the eye's growth. To date human intervention trials in myopia progression using optical means have had limited success but have been designed on the basis of simple hypotheses regarding the amount of defocus at the fovea. Recent animal studies, backed by observational clinical studies, have revealed that the mechanisms of optically guided eye growth are influenced by the retinal image across a wide area of the retina and not solely the fovea. Such results necessitate a fundamental shift in how refractive errors are defined. In the context of understanding eye growth a single sphero-cylindrical definition of foveal refraction is insufficient. Instead refractive error must be considered across the curved surface of the retina. This carries the consequence that local retinal image defocus can only be determined once the 3D structure of the viewed scene, off axis performance of the eye and eye shape has been accurately defined. This, in turn, introduces an under-appreciated level of complexity and interaction between the environment, ocular optics and eye shape that needs to be considered when planning and interpreting the results of clinical trials on myopia prevention.
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