I read a remarkable story in the July issue of the Scientific American written by Dr Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a story which he and his students and colleagues and the many blind children he helped, lived out.
It was remarkable in two ways: First, because it revealed new insights into how the brain processes what we see, and second, because of the personal path that led him to be part of this story. There are many stories of science that are moving but I still do not think enough are made known if only to inspire people. The story of Dr Sinha is, I think, one example of such a story.
If you had been blind since birth and you underwent medical treatment to make you see, what would you see? Will you immediately see what others who were never blind, could see? And would you be able to recruit your other senses to connect with what you now see?
Dr Sinha cited a number of cases which could have discouraged him from helping those who have been blind at birth, recover their sight much later in life (from 6 years old to those into their 20s). He cited an account of a surgery done to a 13-year-old boy in 1728 which did not help at all.
Extensive animal studies also informed Dr Sinha that early deprivation of vision, mostly in one eye, had severe consequences in later life. But knowing that his cases now could turn out differently because of far more sophisticated surgical technology, and because his patients were blind in both eyes, he persevered. He and his colleagues embarked on Project Prakash ( which means “light” in Sanskrit).
It was a project to treat the blindness (of both eyes) among poor children in India. At first, it was very clear that after surgery, the patients could not make sense of what they were seeing. The illustrations in the piece seemed to me like the patients were seeing sprays of sand, where it was very hard to make out the boundaries of objects that make up a scene.
This was until an element was introduced: movement. This proved to be the key to training for object and scene recognition. When the objects started to move, the patients eventually, over time, were trained how to tell objects from each other in a scene, and eventually, recognize the scene.
The patients also were initially unsuccessful in connecting what they could now see with what they are able to touch. This was revealed when they were asked to identify the same object by only looking and then by only touching it. But again, Dr Sinha and his colleagues were surprised to see that this condition improved almost to perfection after a week. Most importantly, they had significant improvements in an ability that we sighted ones take for granted – the ability to detect faces which is so important for our social and emotional lives.
The main feature of sight that seems to be clearly compromised by congenital blindness that is resolved later in life is the resolution of images. Even after a year, there seems to be no improvement in this area.
Love and light
The scientific take-aways of Project Prakash struck me. The first, the confirmation that the regions of the brain that process visual information do not permanently die if you were born blind; and the other, the ability to see in high-resolution seems to require you are already born with sight.
Dr Sinha thinks that their work would not have started were it not for a blue glass bowl. That is the other reason why I find his story remarkable. It was him, not his mother who made it a life-long ritual to reserve the coins in her blue glass bowl for the kids she finds on the streets, many of them blind.
Dr Sinha admitted having long been desensitized by the sheer number of these children in need. But when his mother died and he glanced upon the blue bowl and what it represented, he gained “new eyes” in seeing these children, focusing on the blind ones – the ones that he can help. The rest was a story on love and light. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.