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Getting a Clearer View of the Eye, By Way of the Universe

June 27, 2015

When Kim and I set off to write a book about light, we did so because we thought it was a fascinating subject that seemed greatly underappreciated. In fact, one of the themes of our book is that light is found everywhere in a multitude of forms and does an amazing variety of things. And the technology used to harness and understand light can spread into our lives in unforeseen ways.

 

Take, for instance, this result just announced in a press release by the University of Illinois. A team of scientists and engineers there used techniques developed to image the most distant objects in the Universe (called “adaptive optics”) as a way to come up with a new method for imaging individual cells in the back of the eye.

 

Image: Petr Novák, Wikipedia

 

What’s the connection? Adaptive optics uses hardware to correct for the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. Since it’s expensive and difficult to get telescopes above the constant churning of air that keeps us alive on this planet, adaptive optics enables many more telescopes are the ground have clearer views of the cosmos.

 

 

Adaptive optics at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Image: ESO

 

The new research allows for the same “correction” of imaging that takes into account the human eye’s complexities and constant motion. Instead of using hardware to make these changes, this eye-imaging technique employs computational algorithms to compensate for these blurring effects.

 

The hope is that one day in the not-so-distant future, this kind of enhanced imaging can be used in doctor’s offices and hospitals to get snapshots of the individual cells in the back of the eye that allow us to see light. Since many degenerative diseases start in these crucial cells, it could give doctors a head start in tackling some of these debilitating conditions.

 

While we hope the Illinois team’s work continues to be successful in the future, we applaud them at this stage for reaching across scientific disciplines to make an exciting advance in the study of light. After all, whether it comes from a distant galaxy or a tiny cell, we often learn about ourselves and our surroundings through the information that light brings to us. 

 

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