Satan, I did mean short- or nearsightedness, except maybe for the theory mentioned in my first paragraph, which may apply to longsightedness as well. Moonshine, I hope the following will clear up the confusion.
I’ve found a newspaper article that contains most of the info I was looking for, except for that Japanese guy. I must have read that somewhere else. First, the source: It’s from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of Sep 24, 1997. They report on the Annual Conference of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. All the interesting stuff was found by the research group of one Frank Schaeffel of the University of Tübingen, Germany. They received a Max Planck Research Award for their work, so it may not be as preliminary as I said it was.
Second, the basic mechanism: It’s all about the length of your eyeballs (height and width aren’t even mentioned). It increases from about 17 to 24 millimeters from birth until your 15th birthday. This growth occurs only at daytime, and it normally works such that there is always a sharp picture on the retina.
Third, the problem: The guys found that just about any type of vision impairment caused abnormal length growth of the eyeball. Apparently, this is due to some ‘autofocus’ mechanism in the eye itself; it works even if the eye is disconnected from the brain. The eye appears to try to correct an assumed farsightedness by growing lengthwise even at night. Dopamin seems to be involved in the process; its concentration in the retina decreases during exaggerated growth. Dopamin-like substances have inhibited myopia in animals tests.
Fourth, the cause: There any many types of vision problems that can cause this effect. In animal tests (chickens and monkeys), dispersing lenses and matted glasses work. In humans, dull corneas do the same. The most interesting case, however, is insufficient accomodation by the lens of the eye, which occurs in many people when they work at short distances. The cause is not quite clear, but it may be that their brains are less sensitive to slightly blurred vision and don’t ‘insist’ on full accomodation (which would be hard work for the lens at that distance).
(Moonshine, this seems to mean that you don’t necessarily move your book farther away because you don’t even notive that your vision is slightly blurred. Also, I assume that the effect occurs even at distances we would consider ‘normal’ for reading, but they don’t give a number. Also, I’d think there’s a trade-off between sharpness of focus and mere size of the letters that may cause you to hold the book rather close.)
Fifth, a retraction: Insufficient light may be more significant than I stated in my last post. It is another cause of improper vision that might stimulate growth of the eyeballs. Also, it seems to be especially bad to give that stimulus in the evening (because it may directly trigger additional growth for the following night, I presume; the article isn’t quite clear on that point). So reading late at night under the sheets with a flashlight is a no-no.
Sixth, the remedy: As I said previously, it’s unclear how to combat that effect. On the one hand, you want optimal vision at medium and long distances. On the other hand, retaining that slight myopia could stop the length growth of the eyeball (confirmed in animal tests). On the third hand (sorry), any type of vision impairment can cause myopia, even myopia itself (maybe depending on the degree)! At the time the article was written, they were experimenting with multifocal lenses. Dopamin, as mentioned, is another possible approach.
Seventh, other causes: There are also genetic factors involved. Kids of nearsighted parents are often born with long eyeballs. They have a probability of 60% to become myopic compared to 10% when both parents are healthy. (My personal thought is that the sensitivity of the brain discussed above should also count as a genetic factor.) But environmental factors as described above do seem to be very important: For instance, myopia in children progresses faster during school terms than vacations; orthodox jewish students who study the Bible 16 hours a day are 80% myopic; university students in Taiwan achieve a whopping 96%!
Finally, here’s the web page of the research group in question. I haven’t really looked at it yet, and I don’t have the time at the moment, so feel free to dig for yourselves: http://www.uak.medizin.uni-tuebingen.de/depii/groups/frank/
Oh, and I’m sorry for mixing up some of the details in my first post. It’s good to keep those articles in order to look things up…