Due to the complexity of animal vision — and mammalian vision in particular — repairing damaged eyes is one of the most challenging aspects of modern medicine. But a new study suggests it might one day be possible. Scientists recently succeeded in applying a biological film to rat retinas that is capable of restoring light sensitivity.
The film, called P3HT:PCBM, is a mixture of two organic compounds that are highly sensitive to light (one of them is used in the construction of solar power cells). To test the film, scientists from the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, bred two groups of rats: one with perfect eyesight, and one subjected to substantial ocular degeneration.
After dissection, researchers separated the rats' eyes into individual components in an organic bath, and isolated their retinas. The researchers placed the retinas on either a plain glass or a glass coated with P3HT:PCBM, then measured each retina's responsiveness to light.
The retinas from the rats with ocular degeneration fared badly on plain glass. However, scientists discovered that the P3HT:PCBM-coated glass compensated for poor light detection almost completely.
This process is still a long way from working in humans, since at present, scientists cannot apply the film to a complete eye, or treat a living specimen. Furthermore, while rats and humans generally share the same biology, technology that works on rats will not work on humans without some modification. [See also: 9 Cyborg Enhancements Available Right Now ]
One further hurdle stands in scientists' way, and it has to do with how mammals perceive the world via sight. Mammals possess two kinds of vision: image forming (which involves the brain's ability to process visual information) and non-image forming (which processes faculties like light sensitivity, including the ability to know if a room is lit with your eyes closed). The ability to perceive light is generally a function of non-image forming vision. In practical terms, this means that even if P3HT:PCBM works on humans, it may only be able to treat a very small part of the visual process.
Even so, the eye is a sufficiently complex organ that any method to repair a single piece of it is still an advancement worth pursuing, scientists say. Ocular degeneration is a very real problem among humans, especially older ones, and this problem very often stems from the retina. A biological film could theoretically become a part of a patient's body as easily as an inborn retinal membrane.
Until then, try not to worry too much about damaging your eyes with LCD screens. Most ophthalmological conditions are genetic, anyway.
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