Three blind mice. Three blind mice. See how they… see? The most amazing thing about science fiction is how frequently it becomes science.
Drs. Sheila Nirenberg and Chethan Pandarinath, researchers at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College, are on the verge of a Star Trek-like breakthrough. They have managed to crack the code of how an eye’s retina communicates with the brain and developed a prosthetic eye capable of restoring up to 90 per cent normal vision in blind mice.
Of course, these are mice, not humans, but scientists use mice for very good reason, because the venerable rodents give a very good approximation of how human senses operate. The researchers managed to accomplish their ingenious feat by taking a complete animal eye and attaching electrodes to the optic nerve. They measured the electric pulses that viewing an object transmit to the nerve through the retina. The code itself might be indecipherable, but if a retina always generates the same electric code when looking at a face, and a different code when looking at a shoe, you can then work backward to derive the retina’s encoding technique.
There is still a long road ahead. Before human clinical trials can proceed, scientists will have to repeat the decoding for the human eye and unravel a giant roll of red tape. Nevertheless, the accomplishment should still leave us all awestruck. It truly is science fiction become science.
Think Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Geordi’s visor did a whole lot more than allow him to see. The device scanned the electromagnetic spectrum allowing him to “visualize” beyond the range of normal human perception such as “see” into the infrared, view things microscopically and interface with computers to bring up analytic data and the like.
Once the “normal” vision problem is licked, can it be anything more than a matter of time before scientists are able to provide enhanced vision?
We already have Video Augmented Reality (VAR). For the most part people are currently taking advantage of this through handheld smart devices. For example, you get a hankering for Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington so you call up his video on your iPad and prop it up on your counter. Meanwhile your friend calls you on Skype and you chat while you’re cooking. Google and others are working on incorporating this technology into eyeglasses.
But lest I get too far ahead of our erstwhile scientists, what does the current research mean for 39 million blind people in the here and now?
Imagine being given the gift of sight. Nirenberg and Pandarinath have given real hope to the sightless. And Nirenberg fully believes her technique could be applied to the other senses.
For example, prosthetic limbs have become extremely advanced. Oscar Pistorius, a double leg-amputee sprinter qualified for the semi-finals of the men’s 400-metre race at the London Olympics this summer. Mechanical hands are beginning to approximate natural movement by interpreting simple nerve impulses.
But what if those replacement limbs could actually feel? The age of bionics is truly just around the corner.
Science or nonsense
Does the tryptophan in turkey make us drowsy following a Thanksgiving feast?
Like most good myths there is an ember of truth burning in this one, but ultimately it is nonsense. Tryptophan is an amino acid that does help the body produce seratonin and melatonin, enzymes that regulate sleep. Turkey does contain tryptophan, but post-Thanksgiving drowsiness is much more complex than that. Complex carbohydrates to be precise. Oh, and fats. All the sugars and fats characteristic of a Thanksgiving feast take a lot of energy to digest. They are also usually washed down by more than usual consumption of alcohol. Finally, the meal itself is usually preceded by days of preparation and partying. It’s not the turkey folks.
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