Bryn Nelson is a former microbiologist who decided he’d much rather write about microbes than mutate them. Since launching his new career in science journalism with a gripping yarn about an electronic watermelon thumper, he has written for the New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, BBC Focus, Science News for Students and many other publications. A resident of Seattle, he has a particular affinity for unconventional travel destinations and double tall lattes.
What is your feature about?
My story is about a severe and chronic form of eye pain whose source isn’t immediately clear. For some people, however, the agony is so excruciating that it can provoke thoughts of suicide. An 82-year-old ophthalmologist named Perry Rosenthal, once hailed for his breakthrough discoveries in the field, has obsessively hunted for the true cause of this mysterious pain. In doing so, he has alienated some former colleagues and become a hero to patients who felt abandoned after their own eye doctors accused them of being dishonest or melodramatic.
Within the past few years, Rosenthal’s potential explanation – that dysfunctional nerves or altered pathways in the brain may be causing some of the worst pain – has begun to catch on. As he gains supporters, more researchers are using the new line of enquiry to devise their own strategies to alleviate the suffering.
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
I didn’t know beforehand that our corneas are so jam-packed with nerve endings or that the tear film is such a sophisticated and sensitive three-part structure – meaning that the pain triggered by something going wrong in or around the eye can be incredibly intense. I also didn’t realise that few researchers or patients are really happy with the catchall category of “dry eye disease”, which has become something of a dumping ground for anything that can make your eyes feel dry, including chronic eye pain.
Like cancer, though, the range in severity and the underlying mechanisms of “dry eye” may vary enormously. That lesson stuck with me as a surprising example of how little we still know about our eyes and how messy medical science can be. From multiple patients, I also learned how intractable eye pain can take over nearly every aspect of their lives – and even make some wish they were dead.
Read Bryn's feature on Mosaic, publishing 8 September 2015.