Staring into a red light worked for bumblebees and mice, but now scientists have found that it could have groundbreaking benefits for humans, too. After years of research, the medical world has happened upon an exciting breakthrough for eye health. And it could have a positive impact for years to come.
The findings were particularly beneficial to people who are 40 and over. That’s because from that age onwards your eyesight declines. This is caused by your peepers gradually losing the ability to focus on objects close to you.
This change in your eyes’ capacity to clearly see near objects most commonly occurs in adults between the ages of 41 through 60, according to the American Optometric Association. It comes about when your eyes’ lenses lose flexibility as you age. And this makes it harder for people to swap their focus between things that are close and far away.
Early signs of failing eyesight might be that you need to hold a letter further away to read it, or perhaps your work on a computer or tablet could look blurred. When this happens, it’s definitely time to schedule an appointment with an optometrist. They’ll examine your eyes and recommend options such as eye surgery or wearing glasses.
For humans, the ability to be able to see clearly is vital. We differ from our animal friends in that we can’t rely on our other senses – like, say, a cat uses its whiskers – to guide us around. Sight is the most important of our faculties, and it helps us perform daily tasks without injury.
But just how does vision work? Well, it works in a similar way to a camera. Light enters a hole at the front of both and then moves into a lens – in your eye, it passes through the protective film of the cornea first. Your lens then alters the light’s course and guides it onto the retina.
The retina is located at the back of your eye. In a camera, of course, its equivalent would be the film – or a sensor chip in a digital camera. In photography, the amount of light that enters is controlled by the shutter, though in your eye, light is controlled by the iris.
Muscles in the iris let differing amounts of light in as they relax and contract. This, incidentally, is why your pupils get bigger and smaller when you walk between rooms with different lighting. The magic then happens when this light reaches the retina. That’s because the latter tissue is coated in millions of light-responsive receptors.
These minuscule sensors are called rods and cones. When light touches them, they transform and set off a multitude of electrical impulses to the brain via the optic nerve. You have two eyes, of course, and hence two optic nerves. These cross over and both enter the brain at a place called the optic chiasm.
Messages then move to different parts of the brain; those from the eyes’ left side go to the left, and messages coming from the right go to that side. Information about the image is separated into two – contrast and movement make up one part, and detail including color form the other. All of these signals reach the visual cortex at the back of the brain – together recreating the image in front of you.
Your retina is believed to contain around 120 million rod cells, and these detect light. Meanwhile, cone cells – of which there are between six and seven million – pick up color. Most of these are in a tiny spot called the fovea, which is situated in the middle of the retina. Furthermore, this is where the picture you see is created.
It’s also worth mentioning that each individual eye is only able to create two-dimensional pictures. But the brain takes the two different images created by each eye and puts them together to build them up into a 3D image. Naturally, all of this is incredibly clever, and it’s just one example of how amazing the human body is.
Many people, though, will not appreciate the marvel of their eyesight until they start to lose it. As we’ve discussed, this is something that happens to a large proportion of us as we get older. When we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible – perhaps because of a change in their hardness, size or shape.
People who start struggling to see objects close to them may have developed a condition called presbyopia. Though this isn’t the only way your eyesight can be affected in later life. Common complaints as you get older include the need for more light to be able to see properly while performing close tasks.
Conversely, age-related deterioration to your eye’s lens can make it scatter light rather than pinpointing it onto your retina. This can create more glare from bright light in your field of vision, such as headlights coming towards you when driving or reflected sunlight on a window.
In middle age you might also start to suffer from dry eyes, as they produce less basal tears. These are the tears that you always have in your eyes to keep them in moist and healthy, as well as clearing away any small bits of dust that find their way into your peepers.
Menopausal women going through hormonal changes sometimes find that they produce fewer tears. But another common problem for both sexes as they age could be a change in how they can see color. That’s because the eye’s lens can lose its transparency and make it more difficult to see some shades.
While these aforementioned problems can occur in middle age, it doesn’t mean the younger generations can relax and ignore eye health. In fact, a multitude of behaviors can cause damage to your eyes before you reach that milestone. And among the top of these, is – you’ve guessed it – screen time.
Staring at a computer, TV or smartphone can cause your eyes to become dehydrated. That’s because you blink less when looking at a screen, and this deprives your eyes of the vital nourishment provided by basal tears. Furthermore, reading small typing on a phone or adapting to changing light levels can cause also eye strain.
A bad diet, lack of sleep and smoking are also big no-nos for healthy peepers. Meanwhile, it’s important to protect your eyes properly with sunglasses that provide maximum UV protection and wear swimming goggles in the pool. It also goes without saying that using correctly fitting contact lenses and replacing eye make-up regularly are essential, too.
In addition, keeping on top of eye health means annual visits with an eye doctor. If you start experiencing any problems – such as seeing wavy images or experiencing loss of vision – be sure to book an appointment as soon as possible. Likewise, floating lights can be a normal symptom of your eyes aging, though this should still be checked out by a professional.
But let’s return to red light. We’ve talked about how problems with near vision can emerge as you get older. But scientists have found that deep red light can have transformative healing properties – even on eyes damaged by aging. What’s more, it only takes a few minutes a day to kickstart the recovery process.
A report published in The Journals of Gerentology claims that staring at a red light for three minutes daily can go a long way to repair naturally occurring damage to eyesight caused by retinol aging. The study – undertaken by University College London (UCL) in the summer of 2020 – examined the effects on 24 adults between the ages of 28 and 72.
The participants – of whom an equal number were male and female – had no eye conditions. Before the experiment, their peepers were examined to measure how sensitive their rods and cones were to light. This was done by requesting them to identify low light sources in the dark for their rods, and making out blurred colored letters to test their cones.
Then, the participants were equipped with a mini torch to take away. They were requested to look into a 670-nanometer red light beam for three minutes, every day for two weeks. After this, they were tested again for eye sensitivity in both their eye rods and cones.
Professor Glen Jeffery from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology was a head researcher on the experiment. And in the subsequent report, he explained, “As you age your visual system declines significantly – particularly once over 40. Your retinal sensitivity and… color vision are both gradually undermined, and with an aging population, this is an increasingly important issue.”
Jeffery went on, “To try to stem or reverse this decline, we sought to reboot the retina’s aging cells with short bursts of long-wave light.” The results were startling; the light had no effect for those under 40, but it was in the older age group that big improvements were seen.
Cone color contrast sensitivity apparently got much better for the middle-aged and older participants. In some cases, this recovery was as high as 20 percent. What’s more, the greatest progress was seen in the blue part of the light spectrum which eyes can see – a section more vulnerable to the aging process.
The older testers also saw an improvement in rod sensitivity, which is a measurement of our ability to see clearly in low light. Jeffery said, “Our study shows that it is possible to significantly improve vision that has declined in aged individuals using simple brief exposures to light wavelengths that recharge the energy system that has declined in the retina cells – rather like recharging a battery.”
Jeffery added, “The technology is simple and very safe. [It uses] a deep red light of a specific wavelength, that is absorbed by mitochondria in the retina that supply energy for cellular function. Our devices cost about [$16] to make, so the technology is highly accessible to members of the public.”
These results are certainly remarkable. In countries with aging populations – such as the U.K. and the U.S. – the findings are great news. Indeed, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is set to reach 80 million by 2040, according to the United States Census Bureau. And Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimates that age group will almost double in the next 50 years.
But just how does long-wave light improve eyesight? Well, here’s the science bit. Our retinas age faster than any other organ. Mitochondria are organelles that generate chemical energy and boost function and are found in all of your body’s cells. The retina uses a lot of energy, so it has a high density of mitochondria in its photoreceptors.
However, this energy consumption is why your retina ages so fast – energy production reduces by up to 70 percent over a lifetime, according to Science Daily. Consequently, the performance of the photoreceptors in your eyes decreases as they aren’t being fired up enough. And this is where shining light into your eyes can help.
Mitochondria in your eyes are able to absorb this light and use it to produce more energy. But shining a regular torch into your eyes isn’t going to do the trick, as this particular light has a long wavelength. Instead, the red light used in the study was 670 nanometers.
A nanometer – as science boffins will know – is a billionth of a meter. When white light is split into the colors of a rainbow through a prism, red light has the longest wavelength – from 620-750 nanometers – all the way down to violet light, which has the shortest.
But it’s this red light that is most easily taken in by the eye’s mitochondria. Jeffery said, “Mitochondria have specific light absorbance characteristics influencing their performance: longer wavelengths spanning 650 to 1000 nanometers are absorbed and improve mitochondrial performance to increase energy production.”
The effect was the same even if the participants’ eyelids were closed when the torch was shone into them, as they didn’t block out the red light. We’ll just reiterate here that the effects can’t be reproduced with a regular flashlight at home – whether or not your eyes are closed.
Though if this sounds like something you’d like to try, unfortunately you can’t pick up one of these torches in the store quite yet. But thanks to these impressive results, they might be something you may be able to get through your health center in the future.
As the participants discovered, using these torches at home was simple yet effective. In addition, Jeffery’s estimation that the cost value would be around $16 means that the products wouldn’t be out of many people’s price range. And as long as the price tag wasn’t too inflated, this would make them accessible to many.
If these wonder torches were available over the counter, they would doubtless help the millions of older folk across the world now and for generations to come. Just one thing though: remember that those screen time rules still apply. Indeed, prevention is always better than the cure.