Phototoxicity to the retina: Mechanisms of damage

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Light damage to the retina occurs through three general mechanisms involving thermal, mechanical, or photochemical effects. The particular mechanism activated depends on the wavelength and exposure duration of the injuring light. The transitions between the various light damage mechanism may overlap to some extent. Energy confinement is a key concept in understanding or predicting the type of damage mechanism produced by a given light exposure. As light energy (either from a laser or an incoherent source) is deposited in the retina, its penetration through, and its absorption in, various tissue compartments is determined by its wavelength. Strongly absorbing tissue components will tend to "concentrate" the light energy. The effect of absorbed light energy largely depends on the rate of energy deposition, which is correlated with the exposure duration. If the rate of energy deposition is too low to produce an appreciable temperature increase in the tissue, then any resulting tissue damage necessarily occurs because of chemical (oxidative) reactions induced by absorption of energetic photons (photochemical damage). If the rate of energy deposition is faster than the rate of thermal diffusion (thermal confinement), then the temperature of the exposed tissue rises. If a critical temperature is reached (typically about 10°C above basal), then thermal damage occurs. If the light energy is deposited faster than mechanical relaxation can occur (stress confinement), then a thermoelastic pressure wave is produced, and tissue is disrupted by shear forces or by cavitation - nonlinear effects. Very recent evidence suggests that ultrashort laser pulses can produce tissue damage through nonlinear and photochemical mechanisms; the latter because of two-photon excitation of cellular chromophores. In addition to tissue damage caused directly by light absorption, light toxicity can be produced by the presence of photosensitizing agents. Drugs excited to reactive states by ultraviolet (UV) or visible light produce damage by type I (free radical) and type II (oxygen dependent) mechanisms. Some commonly used drugs, such as certain antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and psychotherapeutic agents, as well as some popular herbal medicines, can produce ocular phototoxicity. Specific cellular effects and damage end points characteristic of light damage mechanisms are described.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-490
Number of pages18
JournalInternational journal of toxicology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2002


  • Drug Phototoxicity
  • Eye
  • Laser
  • Light Damage
  • Ocular Phototoxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology


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