It's hard to exaggerate how much doctors benefit from technologies that come straight from physics laboratories – often as accidental spin-offs – from MRI scanners and radiotherapies to optical fibres. Adaptive optics, the latest contribution from astrophysics, normally allows space-telescopes to correct images deformed by the medium through which light travels. Now with a miniaturised version of the technology researchers are taking precise pictures of the eye’s retina, despite the fluid filling the eyeball, to study damage done to retinal capillaries (shown in blue) by diabetes – the main cause of blindness in the US. And what the first images from diabetic volunteers believed to have healthy retinas revealed, shocked them. Previously unseen corkscrew-shaped dysfunctional capillaries or in some, entire swathes of dead capillaries, had gone completely unnoticed by existing scanners. Future scanners will build-in adaptive optics to allow early detection of diabetic retinopathy.
Written by Tristan Farrow