A new research center approved yesterday by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will include a team of scientists at the University of Rochester who are developing a new laser-based system to see the inside of the human eye in more detail than ever before.
The Center for Adaptive Optics will be based at the University of California at Santa Cruz and include researchers from 10 universities, including Rochester, as well as several companies and national laboratories. The Rochester team will include researchers from Bausch & Lomb, the pre-eminent technology-based health care company for the eye.
The center is one of five new science and technology research centers funded by the NSF for the next five years; scientists at each center will receive up to $20 million for research. At the adaptive optics center, researchers will focus on a technology widely used by astronomers to offset distortion in the atmosphere and allow them to see distant stars and planets better than they would with conventional technology. On a much smaller scale, the same type of distortion occurs within our own eyes. David Williams, director of the University's Center for Visual Science, will head a cluster of researchers exploring the use of adaptive optics in vision research. Working with Williams will be undergraduate and graduate students at the University, as well as former student Don Miller, assistant professor of optometry at Indiana University, and former postdoctoral researcher Austin Roorda, assistant professor of optometry at the University of Houston.
While Williams and colleagues study vision, most adaptive optics researchers are astronomers trying to get a better look at the heavens. "The center will make it much easier for us to rub shoulders with researchers in the astronomy community," says Williams, who is the William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics. "Astronomers have already solved some of the same issues we're facing."
Williams and colleagues have developed a laser-based system that allows scientists to see inside the human eye more clearly than ever before. A key to the system is a precision device known as a deformable mirror, equipped with 37 tiny computer-controlled pistons to move minute regions of the two-inch-wide device ever so slightly in response to customized information about a person's eye.
While the team has used the adaptive optics system to see into the eye, the scientists are also investigating ways to use adaptive optics to allow people to see out into the world more clearly. The detailed topographic information of a person's inner eye might make it possible to customize vision devices, making extraordinary vision possible for pilots, athletes, and others. The vision team believes adaptive optics someday may also help physicians more effectively diagnose and treat diseases that cause blindness, such as glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.
Center scientists are focusing on developing low-cost devices that might have commercial potential. The Rochester team will incorporate a better mirror and a faster imaging system into its retina-imaging device and will also try to make it smaller and less expensive to build.
The center also plans a wide variety of outreach activities. The University of Rochester team will help develop physics experiments especially relevant to undergraduates who are preparing for medical school; those students typically comprise a hefty portion of students taking introductory undergraduate physics. Williams' group will also develop simple hands-on museum exhibits in optics and vision.
The center is headed by Jerry Nelson of UC Santa Cruz, the inventor of the Keck Telescope, the world's largest. Nelson has developed adaptive optic systems that make it possible to take pictures of the stars which are even better than those from the Hubble Telescope. Nelson will head a large effort using adaptive optics to improve telescopes and make possible new observations of solar systems, distant galaxies, and other features of the universe.