New research suggests that the human brain has the potential to learn how to see again even after a person is diagnosed with clinical blindness. The latest study into this fascinating topic was conducted by researchers at Italy's prestigious University of Pisa.
This study specifically researched people who suffered from the hereditary disease called retinitis pigmentosa. This illness is sometimes called "rod cone dystrophy" and can lead to blindness after years without proper treatment. Retinitis pigmentosa currently affects around 100,000 Americans.
Researchers placed a specially designed visual prosthetic implant in each of the patients. These prosthetics were designed to relay various visual signals straight to the brain. The implant works by artificially stimulating the axons of the retinal ganglion cells. In case you are not aware, the retinal ganglion cells are located right in the retina of the eye. These cells are very important for transferring visual data from the external world to the brain.
When the professors looked at MRI scans of the patients' brains with prosthetics, they found that the patients' brains could recognize certain visual phenomena. After a few sessions, researchers noted that many patients who said they could recognize various visual stimuli had a higher degree of brain activity.
However, this implant did not work miracles on the very first research session. Researchers noted that only those patients who received more training and who worked longer with the prosthetic had better results. These patients also showed great improvement in the brain's thalamic and cortical regions. As long as the patient practiced regularly, this device could help strengthen areas of the brain that deal with registering visual stimuli.
This research is especially important for neuroscientists interested in the growing field of neuroplasticity. These results clearly show that the brain has the ability to change overtime with corrective visual prostheses. Even patients who had been blind for many years showed significant improvements in recognizing certain forms of visual stimuli by the time this study was over.
There are currently around 40 million people who suffer from blindness around the world. Most of these people developed blindness over the course of many years of degeneration, especially in the retinae. The researchers in this Italian study hope that their work will help scientists develop more accurate artificial visual inputs for future patients. They also hope their work will help neuroscientists better understand how visual stimulation can best be activated in the brain.
The head researchers on this Italian study were Maria Concetta Morrone and Elisa Castadldi. Anyone interested in reading the official report of their work should look in the journal PLOS Biology , in which it was published on October 25th, 2016.