In a field that is as specialized as astronomy, the implications of the work of professionals within the discipline are often obscured from members of the general public, who may not readily identify the relevance of what happens in the study of space to their own daily lives. One of the most exciting ways in which specialized information and accomplishments from the field of astronomy have been disseminated to the public have occurred when astronomers find cross-over uses for some of their instruments and processes. In 2003, the astronomer-researcher Scott Olivier and his team of investigators determined that the techniques and instruments of adaptive optics could achieve great discoveries not only in the planetary spheres, but also for the medical field. Olivier (2003) and his team found that adaptive optics can be used for at least two purposes in optometry; one purpose is diagnosing eye diseases, and the other purpose is to treat those diseases. With this finding, people can see how the work that occurs in the study of outer space can have significance and direct application right here on Earth.
According to Callahan (2003), the idea of adaptive optics was proposed in 1953, when a frustrated astronomer was motivated to find a way to mitigate the distorting effects that “light from stars, planets, and galaxies picks up while passing through the Earth’s soupy atmosphere” (p. 102). Distortions decreased the utility and descriptive capacity of photographs and visual impressions captured by sophisticated telescopes, blurring images, robbing them of crispness and clarity, and preventing astronomers from assessing their unique features. It was only 30 years later, however, when astronomers developed the sophisticated adaptive optical technology that permitted them to finally see images with a high resolution and unparalleled visual crispness (Callahan, 2003). It was ten more years before the federal government declassified the technology so that it could be explored by researchers (Philipkoski, 2003). One of the most compelling and moving images produced by the advance in adaptive optics technologies was a view of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons; images of Titan prior to adaptive optics were extremely poor and yielded little to no useful information for astronomers (Philipkoski, 2003). When images of the same moon and other planetary bodies were compared before and after the use of adaptive optics, the National Science Foundation immediately perceived the possibility of applying the theories and instruments of adaptive optics to the science of human vision and vision correction, and it began funding research to study this subject (Callahan, 2003).
Callahan (2003) explains that the eye’s “cornea, lens, vitreous fluid and other structures” can obstruct clear views of the retina, which sends images to the brain via impulses conveyed through the nervous system (p. 102). The adaptive optics technology used for taking clearer photographs of objects in space was refined so that specific instruments could be used for examining human vision. The specific application that was developed is a tool, the ocular aberrometer, which “measures imperfections in light reflected off the retina” (Callahan, 2003, p. 102). In many cases, the adaptive optic instruments are so tiny that they are as small as a speck of dust; they can even be inserted on a small microchip into existing equipment, such as fundus cameras, which are used to take pictures of the human eye (Olivier, 2003). The result is that vision doctors can determine where optical problems reside, as well as what the nature of the problems is and how the problems can be corrected. The adaptive optic technologies permit doctors to view the “living cells” that reside in the retina and are changing constantly (Miller & Thibos, 2003, n.p.). The technology is so precise that users can zoom in their instruments to be able to view individual cells (Philipkoski, 2003). Olivier (2003) adds that another benefit of the advanced optic technologies is that patients can actually see the interior of their eyes and get a first-hand peek at their problem, as well as visualize the proposed solution.
Adaptive optics led to the development of corrective vision surgery using lasers, a practice which has gained popularity in recent years, but the most current generation of adaptive optics technologies that are being used permit doctors to be even more precise in applying treatments that are customized to each patient’s specific needs, which are almost as diverse as individuals’ fingerprints. According to doctors who use the adaptive optics technologies pioneered by astronomers, patients who benefit from these tools can not only recuperate their original visual functioning, but exceed it, enjoying vision that is “sharper than 20-20” (Callahan, 2003, p. 102). Indeed, Olivier (2003) contends that it is not abnormal for patients to achieve “supernormal” vision ratios of “20/8” (n.p.). Another doctor adds that “in the next 20 years, eyeglasses and contacts will become as obsolete as whalebone girdles and buggy whips” (in Callahan, 2003, p. 102).
In addition to common vision problems that affect a large number of the population, such as near-sightedness or its opposite, some of the most promising applications of the adaptive optic technologies involve the potential early diagnosis and treatment of more serious and compromising diseases, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, and retinopathy caused by diabetes (Olivier, 2003). If these technologies can indeed identify such illnesses in their early stages, it is likely that the prevention rate of more serious problems, including blindness, can be increased substantially (Miller & Thibos, 2003). At present, without these technologies, doctors have far fewer possibilities for diagnosing certain problems. In addition to the advantages that adaptive optic technologies provide with respect to zooming in on individual cells in hard to access places in the eye, the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002) cited another benefit of the technology, and that is that the instruments currently being used allow doctors to look at the eye as a three-dimensional structure. The instruments also permit intense magnification that is not possible with existing tools and techniques (University of California, Santa Cruz, 2002). As Miller and Thibos (2003) indicate, “In glaucoma… the actual disease is cells in the optic nerve dying, and… doctors can’t see that happening…. They can only see it after the cells are dead” (n.p.). Miller and Thibos (2003) go on to explain just how dramatic the difference is between diagnosis with adaptive optic technologies and without it: “It may take 10 years for changes in vision caused by glaucoma to show up” (n.p.) without the technologies.
As of 2003, the use of adaptive optics technologies were largely confined to five university research laboratories around the world, where clinical investigations have been examining different applications of the theories and instruments (Philipkoski, 2003). The findings of the investigative teams have been positive and researchers directly involved in the study of adaptive optics technologies are confident that the procedures will be approved for general clinical use within a short period of time. The primary obstacle to distribution at this point involves lowering the cost of the equipment (University of California, Santa Cruz, 2002). Future research, then, is likely to be directed in two main areas: (1) the development of functional but low-cost technologies, and (2) the application of those technologies to a variety of eye ailments, as well as other diseases of the human body.
Callahan, R. (2003). Astronomy technology to improve vision and eye disease diagnoses.International Journal of Humanities and Peace, 19(1), 102.
Miller, D.T., & Thibos, L. (2003). Major technical advance in astronomy improves diagnosis of eye diseases. Indiana University Press Release. Retrieved on May 10, 2007 from http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/717.html
Olivier, S.S. (2003). From stars to sight: Astronomy optics diagnose eye disease, aid vision. Advanced Biomedical Technology Research. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on May 10, 2007 from http://doemedicalsciences.org/abt/optics/olivier.shtml.
Philipkoski, K. (2003, January 23). Getting a closer look at the eye. Wired. [Electronic Version].Retrieved on May 10, 2007 fromhttp://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2003/01/57332
University of California, Santa Cruz. (2002, June 24). Adaptive optics technology provides powerful tools for eye doctors. Science Daily. Retrieved on May 10, 2007 fromhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/06/020624072333.htm