Science

Researchers reveal how blue light exposure is damaging our eyes

Researchers reveal how blue li...
This is the first study to comprehensively reveal how blue light turns safe molecules in the retina into cell killers
This is the first study to comprehensively reveal how blue light turns safe molecules in the retina into cell killers
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Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure
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Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure
This is the first study to comprehensively reveal how blue light turns safe molecules in the retina into cell killers
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This is the first study to comprehensively reveal how blue light turns safe molecules in the retina into cell killers

In today's highly connected world we are increasingly having blue light beamed into our eyes at all times of day. While a convincing body of research is suggesting blue light from our TVs, computers, smart phones and tablets can significantly disrupt our circadian rhythms, it is less clear how much damage this particular spectrum of light is causing to our eyes. A new study from the University of Toledo has homed in on exactly how blue light can damage our eyes and the researchers recommend avoiding looking at cell phones and tablets in the dark.

"We are being exposed to blue light continuously, and the eye's cornea and lens cannot block or reflect it," says Ajith Karunarathne, one of the researchers on the new study.

Our vision fundamentally relies on a molecule called retinal to sense light, and effectively signal visual information to the brain. Karunarathne explains, "You need a continuous supply of retinal molecules if you want to see. Photoreceptors are useless without retinal, which is produced in the eye." The new study finds that in the presence of blue light, retinal can turn against the body, generating chemicals that destroy photoreceptor cells.

Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure
Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure

"It's toxic. If you shine blue light on retinal, the retinal kills photoreceptor cells as the signaling molecule on the membrane dissolves," says Kasun Ratnayake, another researcher working on the project. "Photoreceptor cells do not regenerate in the eye. When they're dead, they're dead for good."

It was found that age-related macular degeneration occurs when the immune system slowly becomes less able to protect against the effects of this combination of retinal and blue light. A natural antioxidant called alpha tocopherol, a derivative of vitamin E, was also found to protect against this degenerative process. Interestingly, the researchers noted that other visible spectrums of light, such as green, yellow or red, did not trigger the same retinal toxicity as blue light.

It's unclear what implications the discovery of the process actually are for those that frequently use screen-based devices. The next step for the researchers will be to closely measure the levels of blue light that come from objects such as cell phones and tablets, to help understand how our eyes are directly responding to exposure from those sources.

"If you look at the amount of light coming out of your cell phone, it's not great but it seems tolerable," says John Payton, who also worked on the study. "Some cell phone companies are adding blue-light filters to the screens, and I think that is a good idea."

Perhaps the more explicit outcome of the study is a better insight into how age-related macular degeneration occurs. Our eyes are exposed to blue light extensively over our lifetimes not just from screen devices but also from ever-present sunlight. This newly discovered mechanism suggests the degenerative process resulting from the combination of retinal and blue light may be implicated in a more long-term, and slower, degradation of our eyesight. This is not something that happens quickly, but instead is a more gradual process, that is potentially amplified by adding our increasing use of screen-based devices to the mix.

The new research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of Toledo

10 comments
Tim Craig
Interesting. But what about UV light with its even shorter wavelength? Many claim it exacerbates AMD damage, although my eye consultant says there is no proven connection (which I don't believe, my AMD was triggered by reading in the Mediterranean sun). Are there particular frequencies that resonate with free radicals that cause the retinal damage? It needs the biochemists to join with physicists and opthalmologists to really button this down, and figure out a fix for AMD.
Brian M
The immediate thought is the light energy, more energy in the blue and higher frequencies of light. Not sure what they are defining as 'blue' light, adding a filter to a phone makes no sense if its just visible blue light as the eye sees it, just going to make colour reproduction look bad. With regards to using cell phones in the dark, my phone automatically dims (and I think there is a change in colour temperature) Being interesting to see their findings on % contribution of phone usage compared to 'natural blue light is.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
People have been looking at the sky throughout history. Maybe the damage has recently been studied in a lot more detail.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
f.lux makes viewing computer screens in the dark soo much more tolerable. It takes away all the bad blue light. No more eye strain, and I can hit the sack and fall asleep right after with no problem.
Rocky Stefano
Most of the newer Samsung phones have blue light filters and I find it makes a huge difference
ekman3D
So is it looking at the sky on a clear sunny day harmful?
physics314
I can't speak for others, but I find that looking at the daytime sky (clear or overcast) does become unpleasant quite quickly, and the urge to avert the gaze is strong. Our bodies do have many self-preservation mechanisms for common environmental stressors, and this could be one of them.
toyhouse
Does this include a bright light reflecting off a blue surface? Or blue frequencies from natural sources? If so, seems we're exposed to such light all the time.
JeffK
Shortly before leaving the Naval Aviation Community in late 1973, I read an article in an Air Force publication with a bearing on this subject. According to research by AF doctors at that time, our eyes were responsible for using up to 25% of the energy we expend every day. This was aimed particularly at pilots and flight crew who rely constantly on their vision for maintaining both situational awareness in the three dimensions external to the aircraft and operational awareness of their flight systems. It stressed wearing quality sunglasses whenever exposed to direct or reflected sunlight to aid in maintaining stamina. I wore sunglasses at the time and continue to wear them whenever driving or outside in the daytime, even when it's overcast. In pre-dawn, dusk and night driving I wear yellow tinted polarized glasses that increase contrast morning and evening and reduce the glare of oncoming headlights at night. They are especially helpful when driving in the rain at night as they cut the glare of headlights reflecting off of rain slick roads. At 67 I have mild Rx glasses for distance, though I pass my driver's license test without them, and need close lenses only for fine print or detail work. My phone and tablet automatically go into night mode, and after reading this article I'm getting a pair of computer glasses with a yellow tint.
Trylon
I've used sunglasses with a reddish tint for decades, starting with Serengeti Drivers. The color shift becomes almost imperceptible after the first week or two of use and your brain learns to accommodate it. It also increases contrast when viewing outdoor scenes. Likewise, use either f.lux or Apple's Night Shift mode at night. Again, you'll barely notice the color shift and it's not critical unless you're a graphics professional.