Children born blind can learn to see as teenagers


In a study of congenitally blind children who underwent surgery to restore vision, researchers have found that the brain can still learn to use the newly acquired sense much later in life than previously thought.

Healthy infants start learning to discern objects, typically by their form and colour, from the moment they open their eyes. By the time a baby is a year old vision development is more or less complete, although refinements continue through childhood. But as the brain grows older, it becomes less adaptable, neuroscientists generally believe. "The dogma is that after a certain age the brain is unable to process visual inputs it has never received before," explains cognitive scientist Amy Kalia of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Consequently, eye surgeons in India often refuse to treat children blinded by cataracts since infancy if they are over the age of seven. Such children are not usually found in wealthier countries such as the United States — where cataracts are treated as early as possible — but are tragically plentiful in India.

In the study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kalia and her collaborators followed 11 children enrolled in Project Prakash, a humanitarian and scientific effort in India that provides corrective surgery to children with treatable cataracts and subsequently studies their visual abilities. ('Prakash' is Sanskrit for light.)


Written By: Madhusree Mukerjee
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  1. This is fascinating. It must be noted that the claims made for developing useful vision are slight in this article, but that only an aspect of vision (contrast sensitivity tested with simple shapes) is greatly (many times) improved from a very low level.

    It would be nice to learn precisely how this vision enhancement works for them.

    I have a theory that those who experienced the greatest benefit here might be exactly those children with the greater tendency to synaesthesia. The theory goes that these kids suffered less apoptosis/cell pruning during the first few years of life and still may have some residual capacity for configuring by that process. This may be difficult to assess as detectable synaesthetes are few in number (around 5%) but if we extend the cross coupled synaesthete into its probable correlate, metaphor usage, there are new research tools that can identify this hypothesised continuum of “cross coupledness” in the population.

  2. I immediately thought of Stevie Wonder, who I think I’m right in saying underwent treatment to try to give him sight for long enough to see his daughter, but finally, for reasons I can’t recall, decided against; I think he would only have been able to see for a very short period of time and the risks involved in the operation outweighed the possible benefits.

    But that was a long time ago, and developments since then may now make it feasible for sight to be permanently restored.

    In any case this is good news, and science being what it is, I’m confident research will certainly continue, it will reach a critical mass and eventually snowball.

    Aren’t I a smart arse/ass!

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