Stare at a computer screen for long enough and you might feel like you’re going blind. But researchers from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratories think that computers could actually help prevent blindness. The researchers’ startup, Automated Medical Diagnostics (AMDx), is developing software that detects early signs of diabetic retinopathy (an eye disease that can cause blurred vision and blindness) by comparing digital photos of a patient’s retina to images representing progressive stages of the disease.

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The process is deceptively complicated–researchers spent 5 years working on an algorithm that can effectively compare retinal images to a 20,000 photo database. And even that doesn’t diagnose the disease. Rather, it alerts doctors when a patient needs to be sent to a specialist for further testing.

AMDx’s software is currently being tested in clinics in Mississippi and Tennessee. Pictures of patient retinas are sent via the web to AMDx’s servers, where they are compared to database images. A researcher checks the results manually, but eventually, computers might take over the whole process. And if that happens, doctors will be able to check a nearly unlimited amount of patients per day for diabetic retinopathy in a matter of seconds.

Via MIT Technology Review