And their research could lead to a preventative treatment.
BAD, BAD BLUE LIGHT. When it comes to our eyesight, the various colors of light our eyes are subjected to are far from equal. Blue rays of light, which have shorter wavelengths and more energy than other colors, can damage our eyes over time – they contribute to macular degeneration, the primary cause of blindness.
Now, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Toledo, we know how blue light causes this damage, meaning we might also be on track to preventing it. They published their study Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.
STEP AWAY FROM THE SCREEN. Sunlight contains all the colors of the light spectrum, from blue to red, and it's our primary source of blue light exposure. However, digital devices, such as computers, televisions, and smartphones, also emit blue light, and we spend an awful lot of time staring directly at those screens from a close distance. We also tend to turn to our devices at night, and that's when blue light is the most damaging.
Macular degeneration is essentially the death of the retina's photoreceptor cells. For their study, the researchers decided to target retinal molecules that photoreceptor cells need in order to sense light and send signals to the brain.
"You need a continuous supply of retinal molecules if you want to see," researcher Ajith Karunarathne said in a press release. "Photoreceptors are useless without retinal, which is produced in the eye."
In the lab, the researchers combined retinal with various cells from the body, including photoreceptor cells, neurons, and heart cells. When they shined blue light on the retinal, it produced poisonous chemical molecules that killed the cells. Neither blue light or retinal alone damaged the cells.
A RAY OF HOPE. The news wasn't all bad. The researchers also discovered that alpha tocopherol, a molecule derived from Vitamin E, can prevent this cell death. They're hopeful that their research could lead to a treatment, such as eyedrops, that can slow macular degeneration.
"Every year more than two million new cases of age-related macular degeneration are reported in the United States," Karunarathne said. "By learning more about the mechanisms of blindness in search of a method to intercept toxic reactions caused by the combination of retinal and blue light, we hope to find a way to protect the vision of children growing up in a high-tech world."
Until then, you might want to trade in your nightly Twitter session for an old-fashioned paperback.
READ MORE: Cell Phone Use and Blindness Linked By "Toxic" Oxygen in New Study [Inverse]
More on macular degeneration: Four Patients Test Retinal Implant That Could Stop Age-Related Blindness