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Young man looks at his smart phone in bed

City academic's paper named as 23rd most shared in 2016

The New England Journal of Medicine study found that spending too much time using smartphones in bed could cause temporary blindness


A research paper by Professor John Barbur and colleagues on the effects of transient smartphone blindness has been named as the 23rd most shared academic paper of 2016 by Altmetric.

The study was given a score of 2406, placing it in the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric. This included mentions in 238 news outlets, 13 blogs, 586 tweeters, 43 Facebook pages and 7 Google+ users.

Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study found that spending too much time using smartphones in bed could cause temporary blindness. The research was conducted with academics from Moorfields Eye Hospital, King’s College London, and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

While the experience is completely harmless, the authors aimed to highlight the phenomenon to raise awareness for physicians and reduce costly investigations, while also reassuring patients.

Describing two women who presented with visual problems in one eye, the team found that when the patients viewed their smartphone in bed the symptoms seen were due to their eyes adjusting differently to the light emitted by the device.

As while the viewing eye became light adapted, the eye blocked by the pillow was dark adapted. As a result, when both eyes were uncovered in the dark, the light-adapted eye was perceived to be ‘blind’, with the effect – which is known as the differential bleaching of photo pigments - lasting a few minutes.

To further investigate the effect, the authors then viewed a smartphone screen at arm’s length and quantified the time course of recovery of sensitivity in the dark using a rapid dark adaptation test developed at City University London. They found that visual sensitivity of the eye which had not been covered and had been viewing the smartphone was significantly reduced, taking several minutes to recover, and this reduction in sensitivity was measurable at the level of the retina.

John Barbur, Professor of Optics & Visual Science at City University London and co-author of the paper, said:

“It is great that our paper has been named as one of the most shared papers of 2016, and I hope this will raise awareness of this increasingly prevalent, but ultimately harmless, phenomenon.

“Smartphones are now used nearly around the clock, and manufacturers are producing screens with increased brightness to offset background ambient lighting and thereby allow easy reading. As a result, as smartphones become more popular and pervasive presentations such as we describe are likely to become more frequent. Our cases show that detailed history taking and an understanding of retinal physiology can reassure both patient and doctor and can avoid unnecessary anxiety and costly investigations.”

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