Eye Health

13 April 2015

Germanwings pilot: doctor rules out eye problems

An eye specialist tells Health24 that he does not believe that Andreas Lubitz caused the Germanwings airplane crash as a result of vision problems.


An ophthalmologist has indicated that while stress can indeed impact one's eyesight, he is of the opinion that vision problems did not contribute to co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashing a Germanwings jet into the French Alps, killing all the passengers.

There was widespread speculation that that Lubitz was suffering from eye problems that could have ended a career that he was deeply passionate about.

CNN reported that a European government official, familiar with the investigation into the airplane crash, said Lubitz visited an eye doctor because of vision problems. It claimed that the doctor said the cause was related to stress. This was being considered, reported The New York Times, also quoting an official with knowledge of the investigation.

Stress can affect eyes

Ophthalmologist Clive Novis told Health24 that stress most certainly can impact the eyes, but he added: "I don’t believe vision or eye problems played any role in this awful aeroplane crash."

Novis explained that there are two types of stress physical and psychological. Physical stress would result from blunt trauma, chemical burns, extreme weather conditions, surgery, starvation, whereas psychological stress often relates to mental and emotional factors. "Both can affect vision, but I assume we are dealing with the latter in this case."

Read: Killer pilot Lubitz may have drugged captain

He pointed out that psychological stress can alter the normal cognitive (higher brain) functions that are involved with vision. "Vision is a physico-psyhchological process. It has a physical part (light, the lens of the eye, the retina, the optic nerve, etc.) and a psychological part (the higher brain functions).

"It is well known that psychological stress affects the higher brain functions and higher visual functions are included in this too," said Novis.

Detached retina

The BCC went further to add that Lubitz's vision problem could possibly have been a detached retina.

Novis said the retina, which is a thin lining at the back of the eye, can detach for several reasons, such as trauma, eye surgery, infection, inflammation and other diseases of the eye. He said the most common cause of retinal detachment is idiopathic.

"This simply means that we do not know the cause. It usually starts with a hole or tear in the retina. Fluid then enters this hole, goes behind the retina, and pushes it forwards off from the back wall of the eye."

Health24 resident optometrist Megan Goodman said when a retinal detachment occurs, the sensory layer of the eye is separated from the other layers. "Sometime, if treated urgently vision can be restored."

She concurred with Novis that in most cases the cause of retinal detachment is unknown; but she added that it is not associated with stress.

Emotional stress

"When some people get stressed and fatigued they notice their eyelid jumps. This is called myokymia. A more serious condition associated to stress is central serous retinopathy."

She said this is a disease that usually resolves itself in the absence of treatment and typically affects some young or middle-aged men. "Emotional stress is thought to induce or aggravate the disease."

Goodman noted that a patient with this would usually complain of one eye with blurred and distorted vision. "The patient also might report a delay in adapting from being exposed to bright lights, decrease in colour brightness and reduced ability to see contrast."

Lubitz researched suicide methods

The cockpit voice recorder suggested Lubitz crashed the plane deliberately after locking pilot Patrick Sondenheimer out of the cockpit.

German tabloid newspaper The Express claimed that Lubitz may possibly have spiked Sondenheimer's drink with a diuretic substance in order to get him to leave the Airbus A320 cockpit. It claimed that German prosecutors found a laptop at Lubitz's apartment with an online search for information on drugs with a diuretic effect.

"Diuretic drugs essentially increase urinary output in a person taking them to reduce excess water and salt in the body," said Health24's resident doctor Dr Owen Wiese. "There are various kinds of diuretics, all with different mechanisms."

He said this medication is usually prescribed by a doctor and is used for conditions like blood pressure control and to decrease water retention in the case of heart failure.

According to Reuters, German prosecutors said the 27-year-old also appeared to have researched suicide methods and cockpit door security in the days before he crashed the plane. It provides the first evidence, suggesting that his actions may have been premeditated.

Read: Germanwings crash: call to stop shaming mental illnesses

Earlier reports claim that Lubitz was suffering from depression after anti-depressants was found at his home. A torn-up doctor’s note that would have given him time off on the day of the flight was also discovered.  

According to Haarets, the Düsseldorf University Hospital denied reports that it treated Lubitz for depression. However, it did confirm in a statement that the pilot was evaluated at the hospital in February and as recently as March 10.

German prosecutors confirmed that Lubitz received psychotherapy before obtaining his pilot's license, reported AP. It added that medical records from that time referred to "suicidal tendencies" but said visits to doctors since then showed no record of any suicidal tendencies.

Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, said Lubitz passed all required medical checks since becoming a pilot in 2013.

Also read:

Andreas Lubitz: inside the mind of a suicide killer

Could the Germanwings disaster have been prevented?

Vision loss increases risk of suicidal thoughts


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Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg and is currently practising at Tygerberg Academic Hospital in Cape Town. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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