Scientists today reported that the tiny light-sensing cells known as rods have been clearly and directly imaged in the living eye for the first time. Using adaptive optics (AO), the same technology astronomers use to study distant stars and galaxies, scientists can see through the murky distortion of the outer eye, revealing the eye’s cellular structure with unprecedented detail. This innovation, described in two papers in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open access journal Biomedical Optics Express, will help doctors diagnose degenerative eye disorders sooner, leading to quicker intervention and more effective treatments.
“While therapies are only emerging, the ability to see the cells you are trying to rescue represents a critical first step in the process of restoring sight,” says researcher Alfredo Dubra of the University of Rochester in New York, who led the team of researchers from Rochester, Marquette University, and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Milwaukee. “It’s impossible to overemphasize how important early detection is to eye disease.”
“One of the major hurdles in detecting retinal disease is that by the time it can be perceived by the patient or detected with clinical tools, significant cellular damage has often already occurred,” adds team member Joseph Carroll of MCW.
The breakthrough that is ushering in a new era of eye disease research, diagnosis, and treatment is an improved design of a non-invasive adaptive optics imaging system. Dubra and his colleagues were able to push the device’s resolution to its optical limits of nearly 2 microns (a micron is 1/1,000 of a millimeter), or the approximate diameter of a single rod in the human eye.
Rods are much more numerous than cones and are vastly more sensitive to light. With the optical design method successfully demonstrated by Dubra’s team, even the smallest cone cells at the center of the retina, known as the foveal center, can be seen very clearly. Rods can be seen clearly in a less central retinal location.
“This is a really exciting breakthrough,” says Steve Burns, a professor in the School of Optometry at Indiana University, who is not involved in the Biomedical Optics Express research. “Imaging contiguous rod mosaics will allow us to study the impact of a whole new class of blinding disorders on the retina. Since many of the eye diseases most amenable to intervention affect the rods, this should become a major tool for determining what treatments work best for those disorders.”