Laser astronomy aiding in eye examinations

July 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A laser that helps astronomers examine new planets has been adapted to help doctors examine cells in the eye. The breakthrough is enabled by new miniature mirrors at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Lasers have been used for surgery and 2D imaging for years, but a new animation is the first 3D view inside a living eye clear enough to see individual cells -- thanks to laser astronomy.

During an eye exam, your doctor flips a series of lenses between you and the wall chart. A device called a MEMS does the same thing for the largest telescopes in the world.

In a 1992 experiment, Lawrence Livermore Lab shot into space a tremendous laser beam visible for miles. As the beam bounced off a layer in the atmosphere, its reflection was distorted by turbulent air. That distortion was corrected by a special mirror that mimics the corrective lenses your optometrist uses, reshaping itself a thousand times a second.

Today, what's called Adaptive Optics is used to correct what a telescope sees -- a laser guide star to make super clear pictures. And now, it's gone from discovering planets deep in space, to discovering disease deep inside the eye.

"The advances with this integrated circuit, application of these micromachined mirrors has enabled this technology to span these fields," says principal investigator Scot Olivier, "where we go from the largest structures in the universe to some of the smallest structures in the human body!"

With this new mirror-on-a-chip, the space version was shrunk to a tabletop by the lab's interdisciplinary team of Steve Jones, Diana Chen and Scot Olivier. With it, clinics at UC Davis and Indiana University are now beaming lasers into patients' eyes to track the effect of new therapies.

The eyeball is the atmosphere, and the cells in the retina are the stars in your eye.

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