Each day, tens of thousands scientists work to answer questions about the human body. For example: can people who are blind due to retinitis pigmentosa (a genetic eye condition) ever see? A recent study indicates that the answer could be a partial yes.
Vision requires a series of steps. First, the whole eye is exposed to light. Then, photoreceptor cells in the retina (which is at the back of the eye) act as a sort of translator, converting light into electrical signals. Next, the ganglion cells and optic nerve move the electrical signals to the brain. The brain then translates the electrical signals into visuals.
For people with retinitis pigmentosa, the photoreceptor cells stop functioning over time. In the study, scientists skipped the photoreceptor cells by doing an eye injection straight into the ganglion cells that would make the ganglion cells react to light. After this, people will need to wear goggles that turn light into a form that the ganglion cells can “understand.”
“Restoring vision that allows high resolution, high sensitivity, and high detection is not simple,” explains Dr. Anand Swaroop, a senior investigator at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md. The gene injection and goggles do not produce 20/20 vision; instead, they make only shapes and light visible.
The future holds more experimentation, as another company plans to tweak the medical procedure so that they can do away with the goggles. One study participant has a specific wish: he wants to be able to see the colors and smaller shapes that make up his family’s faces. He says, “I am not visually greedy. That would be amazing.”