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Cosmic eye flashes and flash phenomenon

Cosmic eye flashes and flash phenomenon

It seems like I’m hearing more and more patients describe light streaks occurring in their eyes. It could just be chance though. The way they describe these effects pretty much tells me what’s happening (helps me diagnose) and rarely is it anything serious (there are other vascular problems that could cause strange vision problems like a TIA). What patients are telling me about is their ophthalmic migraines whether the patient knew what it was or not. The strange thing is we usually think of the word migraine as causing pain in our head but the eye doesn’t have any pain when this happens. It’s interesting that the cause of this visual phenomenon is thought to be the same cause as the headache type migraine…a vascular fluctuation.

But there are other conditions that can cause light to seem to be inside the eye and not outside. There’s one called a pressure phosphene. You can create these on your own anytime you want. Just press on your eye. It’s easiest to press on the temporal side and then notice the dark circular spot that appears in the nasal part of your vision but it works both ways. That effect has even been used to estimate the intraocular eye pressure and there’s even a simple instrument that is made to do that but it’s accuracy is questionable. You can do this with your eyes open or closed. You can also rub your eyes and get other visual patterns. What’s happening is the photoreceptors are being stimulated, not by light, but by mechanical pressure which then makes those photoreceptors send a signal to your brain as if there was light, or at least an interesting visual pattern…not like a flashlight kind of light.

What is really pretty cool is what the astronauts have described as flashes. As an aside, to be considered an astronaut in the US you have to go up at least 50 miles but that may not be high enough to get cosmic flashes. The astronauts that have orbited the earth have described some really interesting visual phenomenon that has been attributed to cosmic particles that pass through practically anything and can cause a lot of problems with equipment. Astronauts from the Apollo program and more recent ISS orbiter have noticed this. Here’s a quote from astronaut Don Pettit,

“When a cosmic ray happens to pass through the retina it causes the rods and cones to fire, and you perceive a flash of light that is really not there. The triggered cells are localized around the spot where the cosmic ray passes, so the flash has some structure. A perpendicular ray appears as a fuzzy dot. A ray at an angle appears as a segmented line. Sometimes the tracks have side branches, giving the impression of an electric spark. The retina functions as a miniature Wilson cloud chamber where the recording of a cosmic ray is displayed by a trail left in its wake.”

There’s also a certain area above the atmosphere where the astronauts orbit called the South Atlantic Anomaly. When they reach that area they get more cosmic radiation compared to the rest of the orbit apparently due to a change in the magnetic field surrounding the earth. Of course this radiation is being studied but one of the odd ones is with the Phantom Torso and before that there was the the Apollo Light Flash Moving Emulsion Detector (ALFMED).

If you see flashes of light yourself, the likelihood of it being innocuous (harmless) is pretty good. But then, there’s a small chance it’s a retinal problem that needs to be treated which is why patients with any complaint of flashes should be dilated to rule out the bad stuff.

Here are a few links to some of the astronaut web pages that are kinda interesting to read:


And here are a couple of images of what some might “see” when they have a visual migraine:

visual aura

visual aura

visual aura1


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Crowd-sourcing citizen science

Crowd-sourcing citizen science

Crowd sourcing citizen science is awesome! Scientists need you to help them figure things out and it’s very easy and free and fun. Do you realize how much data they are collecting and how little time they have to analyze what they’ve collected? Take this for example….how many galaxies there are in the visible universe……billions. You’d think a computer could be programmed to decipher what’s what but the human ability to make judgment calls seems to work best. There are some citizen science projects that might cost a little money and I’ll mention one of those that I just found out about later.

First, let’s go over a very cool project analyzing galaxies.  By looking at the images made from telescopes you can determine if the galaxy is new, old or ever disrupted from colliding with another galaxy (sorry to say but the Milky Way will be “colliding” with Andromeda…many billions of years from now). Astronomers will be able to analyze huge samples of what people like you and me analyze from identifying individual galaxies. The main study of these galaxies started with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the year 2000 and used a 126 megapixel camera. I analyzed some of the galaxies not too long ago and it’s very easy. The website provides a lot of information about the project to help you appreciate what they’re trying to do. Go here to help or find out more.

The galaxy project is to investigate the very large and far away but there is another project to investigate the very small and earthly bound organisms. You want to help scientists know what the ecology is of our oceans? I’m not sure if I learned this in school but plankton aren’t just one little species of sea creature. There are thousands of different types and if you’ve ever seen some of those weird creatures that live deep in the water, these are pretty fascinating and weird too. So I’ve classified some of them and again, interesting and fun. Here’s where you can find that study.

I might as well tell you that this one website lists all of those and more so maybe you can find something interesting there to entertain yourself and maybe learn a little about some of the research that’s ongoing. The website is https://www.zooniverse.org/. What a great website!

What if you like to watch birds? There’s the backyard program for that. I wish my backyard was bigger and had more trees but even if you don’t have a backyard, the area around you is backyard enough. Go here to learn about this study.

I have an app on my iphone that I use to take pictures of the sky when a couple of satellites fly overhead daily. It’s a free app and after you take the picture of the sky and another one of your surroundings you submit it and later you get a picture back from the satellite that just went overhead. I don’t know if there’s an app for android or not but you can check. The name of the IOS app is Satcam. How cool is that to get an image back on your iphone of what the satellite saw when it passed overhead?

Do you know about the morphology of proteins? Proteins have to wrap around in all kinds of shapes to be effective at what they do but if a particular protein isn’t in the right shape it can be the cause of a certain disease. In this crowd sourced study the only thing you need to do is download their program to your computer which is used for solving the proteins shapes and folds. This is also like the SETI at home project which analyzes radio signals from space. You can also try folding proteins from this website, http://fold.it/portal/ which lets you…..fold the protein.

Oh, the water analysis project…I almost forgot. I haven’t read much about this and not sure exactly how and when this takes place. Sometimes these studies end so if you’re reading this and find out a study ended, let me know so I can post an addendum about that.

And the one that I just found the other day that does cost a little is a very cool idea. Right now it’s a kickstarter campaign so if this doesn’t get enough participants then it may not happen. But the main goal is to see if you can find a new antibiotic. Yep, that’s right. A lot of antibiotics are probably still undiscovered and they could possibly be in a plant growing in your yard. You can find out more about this project here.

And another one for my optometrist friends or anyone that wants to connect retinal neurons….eyewire.org

That should keep you busy during the upcoming Christmas/holiday break if you’re looking for something different to do! Crowd-sourced citizen science!


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