Did Trump Damage His Eyes During the Great American Eclipse? New Cellular-Level Technology Could Find Out

For the first time, scientists have been able to study, on the cellular level, the damage people sustained to their eyes by staring into an eclipse.

The precise name for eclipse-induced retinal damage is solar retinopathy. It’s a rare condition, since eclipses themselves are rare, and it currently has no treatment. This may change that.

Researchers from Mount Sinai used adaptive optics technology, or AO, to look for solar retinopathy in patients in the wake of the solar eclipse that occurred on August 21, 2017. AO makes images sharper. It’s the same technology inside telescopes that make stars focused and easier to see when you look through one. Now, it’s being used to make the view of microscopic cells more precise, too.

Before AO, the only way for doctors to see this kind of detail was by looking at cell samples on glass slides under a microscope. But with AO, they can look at the tiny structures within a living patient’s retina, in real-time, with an unprecedented level of detail. Specifically, it allows them to examine a part of the retina called the photoreceptor layer—the part that corresponds to where the light rays from the sun would focus if you looked at it during an eclipse. A paper describing the work was published December 7 in the scientific journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

836580950 Fans watch the solar eclipse during the third day of the Winston-Salem Open at Wake Forest University on August 21, 2017 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Senior investigator Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Newsweek he and his team started working on this research the moment patients started showing up. Within the first 48 hours or so after the eclipse, no fewer than 22 people came to the hospital worried that they’d permanently damaged their eyes by looking into the sun. Most of them were just showing, as Deobhakta put it, “an overabundance of caution.” Three, however, did show signs of photoreceptor damage, and one did have actual damage.

Most of them had only looked at the eclipse for a few seconds, as Trump appeared to do when he looked at the eclipse without protective glasses. The one woman who incurred permanent damage had looked for 21 seconds.

“And this woman, her story is she was outside and had initially looked at the sun briefly and realized she shouldn’t be,” Deobhakta told Newsweek. “And she saw someone nearby with glasses and asked to borrow them; they’d been looking at the sun so she thought they were legitimate eclipse glasses.”

They weren't. The woman came to Mount Sinai complaining of a black spot in her vision, which Deobhakta presumes is permanent. She had burned a hole into each of eyes' retinas.

“But what’s really interesting is, she says it’s a black spot when you verbally ask her about it,” Deobhakta said. “But when she drew it, she drew a crescent, which would make sense in terms of the part of the sun that wasn’t obscured by the moon … that’s never been seen before. It’s like the eclipse shape was burned into her retina.”

836439918 The diamond ring affect is seen during the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017, at Casper Collage Wyoming. GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Image

AO has been around since the 1990s, according to Deobhakta, when it was used by the United States military for laser tracking. It’s actually been refined enough to use for studying solar retinopathy for the last five years at least; there just hasn’t been an eclipse in that time major enough to work with.

The benefit of finally being able to look at photoreceptor damage in living patients on the cellular level is that it allows doctors like Deobhakta to follow those patients going forward and see if there’s any change to their condition. For now, Deobhakta said, the woman’s visual defect seems permanent. But if it gets bigger—or smaller—he and his colleagues will be able to image that change, which no scientists have ever had the opportunity to do.

836311244 President Donald Trump looks up toward the Solar Eclipse while joined by his wife first lady Melania Trump on the Truman Balcony at the White House on August 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“In our field, treatments are preceded by this sort of imaging,” Deobhakta said. “Blockbuster changes happen when the previous imaging just wasn’t good enough. This is one of those big types of imaging modalities that can do that.”

As for the person from whom the unfortunate patient borrowed the glasses in the first place?

“That person, I have no idea what happened to them,” Deobhakta said. “I suspect there are plenty out there—well, at least some out there, who haven’t actually gone to an eye hospital but have some type of structural damage.”

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