How the perfect pancake could save sight

8 Feb 2016

Scientists are looking into pancake making, as ’tis the season, although it’s glaucoma, not breakfast, that is sparking their interest.

Glaucoma treatment is one of the more surprising reasons to indulge in a bit of pancake eating but, thanks to some clever thinking, UCL research has taken a tasty detour.

By looking at how pancakes of differing thickness form, and how heat and moisture escapes during the cooking process, a team of researchers – from various industries – may have cottoned on to something remarkably simple.

Pancake Tuesday studies

Glaucoma is a group of diseases characterised by a build-up of fluid in the eye, which creates pressure on the optic nerve that can cause blindness. To treat this, surgeons try to make an escape route for the fluid by carefully cutting the flexible sheets of the sclera.

However, knowing how different measurements of thickness allow for pressure to escape is the remarkable thinking behind the work of Professors Ian Eames and Peng Khaw, and Dr Yann Bouremel.

In a tasty explainer video, Bouremel – of UCL’s ophthalmology institute – explains how moisture battles to escape the batter mix as you cook a pancake.

Broad look

The team looked at 14 different types of pancake – Dutch poffertjes at the thicker end of the scale, French crepes at the thinner end of the scale – and found that the heavier the batter, the harder it is for moisture to escape from the bottom. The resulting force the moisture uses to try break through, and around, the batter mix creates craters on the pancake’s base.

Pancake Tuesday glaucoma

By adding more and more milk to the batter, Bouremel showed how a thinner batter allowed moisture to escape far more easily (both through and around), resulting in fewer imperfections on the pancake.

Pancake Tuesday glaucoma

Co-author of the study, Khaw – who is director of the NIHR biomedical research centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital –  explained how surgical techniques to relieve pressure in the eye need work, with novel thinking like pancake construction central to this.

“We are improving this technique by working with engineers and mathematicians,” he said. “It’s a wonderful example of how the science of everyday activities can help us with the medical treatments of the future.”

Main pancake image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic