The Solar Eclipse Burnt Its Imprint on This Woman's Retina

Doctors have used new imaging equipment to examine a patient's eyes at a cellular level to reveal the extent of damage done during the solar eclipse this year.

In August this year people in North and South America, North Africa and parts of Southern Europe were able to witness a rare full eclipse of the sun. The build-up to the astrological event was immense. Viewing parties sold out, Amazon sold some dodgy gear and old superstitions were revived. But the main message in the lead up to the big day was wherever you are, whatever you do: don’t stare at the eclipse with your naked eye. Unfortunately, the temptation to really witness the event was too much for one person and with no surprise, they have irrevocably damaged their eyes. The unfortunate patient has provided scientists with an opportunity to study the effects of looking at the sun, known as solar retinopathy using a new type of technology. The research team took high-resolution images of the damaged eyes using a new type of imaging called adaptive optics. The images provide evidence of the damage at a cellular level.

The Solar Eclipse Burnt Its Imprint on This Woman's Retina
Source: JAMA Ophthalmol

Patient looked at sun for more than 5 seconds

The patient, a young woman in her twenties, presented to her doctor approximately three days after the eclipse on August 21 this year. She told the doctor that during the eclipse she had looked at the sun for roughly 6 seconds on several different occasions without protective eyewear, and then again for a longer period of 15 to 20 seconds while wearing a pair of protective eclipse glasses.

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The woman viewed the eclipse from a position that did not experience total totality. That is when the moon completely covers the sun. During total totality, it is safe to look at the eclipse as there are no visible sun rays to do damage. The patient however viewed the phenomena when the sun was 70 percent obscured.

The published research paper reveals how the woman described symptoms of blurred vision and color distortion, just hours after the event but did not seek medical treatment until three days later. On presentation to her doctor, the woman was diagnosed with solar retinopathy, a rare condition caused by exposure to the sun. "We have never seen the cellular damage from an eclipse because this event rarely happens and we haven't had this type of advanced technology to examine solar retinopathy until recently," lead author Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said in a statement. 

The Solar Eclipse Burnt Its Imprint on This Woman's Retina
Source: JAMA Ophthalmol

Doctors used adaptive optics to examine eyes

The new technology, that doctors used to examine the patient's eyes is called adaptive optics. The imaging allows medical staff "to get an exact look at this retinal damage on such a precise level [which] will help clinicians better understand the condition." After examining the patient's eyes in this detail, doctors could determine that the woman had burned holes in both of her retinas. Further analysis revealed that while there is likely to be minimal vision damage to the right eye, there is a yellow-white spot in the left eye. There is no current treatment for solar retinopathy. Scientist hope these recent images will help them understand the condition better and may provide some hope for future treatment. The images will also be used as a warning statement. Scientist and doctors will use this case to highlight the risks that looking into the sun during eclipses pose and help prepare viewers for the next eclipse in 2024.

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