Chapter 7. Vision: From Eye to Brain
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James Hamblin Brain training is becoming big business. Everywhere you look, someone is talking about neuroplasticity and trying to train your brain. Soon there will be no wild brains left. At the same time, everyone who spends more than two continuous hours using a computer is, according to the American Optometric Association, ruining their eyes with Computer Vision Syndrome. So, Dr. Aaron Seitz might be onto something with his new brain-training program that promises better vision. UltimEyes is a game-based app that's sold as "fun and rewarding" as it improves your vision and "reverse[s] the effects of aging eyes." It doesn't claim to work on the eyes themselves, but on the brain cortex that processes vision—the part that takes blurry puzzle pieces from the eyes and arranges them into a sweet puzzle. (Brain training for memory, the kind we hear about the most on TV, would be the part that lacquers the finished puzzle, frames it, and hangs it on the wall.) A standard 25-minute session using UltimEyes forces your eyes to work in ways they probably don't in everyday life, and its website warns that after the first use, "just like the first time that you go to the gym, your eyes may feel a bit tired. This experience typically goes away by your third session as your visual system adjusts to its new work-out routine." Seitz is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Riverside. To test out his vision-training game, he had players on the university's baseball team use the app. Half the team trained for 30 sessions. For comparison, the other half did no training. © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
by Clare Wilson SOMETIMES you find out more about how something works by turning it off. That seems to be true for mirror neurons, the brain cells implicated in traits ranging from empathy and learning to language acquisition. Mirror neurons are said to help us interpret other people's behaviour, but this has yet to be shown convincingly in experiments. Now a study that briefly disabled these cells might give a better idea of what they do. Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1990s when an Italian team was measuring electrical activity in the brains of monkeys. In the region that controls movement, some of the neurons that fire to carry out a particular action – such as grasping an apple – also fired when the monkey saw another animal do the same thing. The tempting conclusion was that these neurons help interpret others' behaviour. Further work suggested that people also have this system, and some researchers claimed that conditions where empathy is lacking, such as autism or psychopathy, could arise from defective mirror neurons. Yet there has been little evidence to back this up and critics argued that mirror neuron activity could just be some sort of side effect of witnessing action. Powerful magnetic fields are known to temporarily disrupt brain cell activity, and a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is increasingly used in the lab to dampen specific areas of the brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Dinsa Sachan Could being visually impaired have had a role in the musical genius of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles? A study provides some clues by showing that adult mice kept in the dark quickly develop sharper hearing and become better at distinguishing pitch and frequency. The improvements were correlated with adaptations in the brain — such as strengthening of connections between neurons — that normally happen only early in life. For their study, published today in Neuron1, Hey-Kyoung Lee, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and her collaborators selected two sets of healthy adult mice. They kept the first group in a darkened environment for a week, while the other was exposed to natural light. The team used electrodes to measure activity in neurons in the animals' primary auditory cortex — the part of the brain that processes what a sound is, how loud it is and where it comes from. The researchers played sounds of different frequencies and intensities to the mice, and watched how their brain cells reacted. The results “showed that neurons in visually deprived animals can 'hear' much softer sounds” than in control animals, says Lee. “They also have much finer discrimination ability as far as identifying pitch goes.” Previous studies have found that changes in the auditory cortex take a long time, and that people who become blind early in life adapt better than those who lose their sight later. The team's findings, however, show that some modifications can occur rapidly in the adult brain, she says. “Moreover,” she adds, “the changes in the auditory cortex were achieved by changes in the strength of synaptic connections. These were believed to be unchangeable in adults.” © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
By Molly Sharlach Reader, be proud. You’re a perceptual expert. As you read, your eyes alternately focus and move along each line of text in a seamless sequence honed over years of practice. Reading, recognizing faces and distinguishing colors or musical tones are all forms of perceptual expertise. To appreciate the visual skill involved in reading, turn a text upside down. You’ll stumble along in fits and starts, your eyes pausing longer and more often, each movement bringing less information to your brain. To assess how such neuro-ocular blundering might be improved, researchers at the University of British Columbia asked seven volunteers to practice reading novels upside down. After 30 half-hour sessions over a period of 10 weeks, they gained an average of 35 words per minute in reading speed on inverted text. This could be promising news for people with right hemianopia (hemi-uh-NOH-pee-uh), a condition that erases part of the right field of vision in both eyes. Any damage to the left occipital lobe of the brain, or the pathways connecting it to the eyes, can cause this disorder. Hemianopia, from the Greek for “half sight,” most often results from a stroke, but can also befall patients with multiple sclerosis, brain tumors or traumatic injuries. When we read, we see only three or four letters to the left of our eyes’ fixation point, but we pick up information 10 to 15 letters to the right. So in a society that reads from left to right, left hemianopia has little effect on reading ability, but right hemianopia can be devastating. Brain injury patients rank the inability to read among the most significant effects on their quality of life. © 2014 Scientific America
By James Gallagher Health and science reporter, BBC News Cells taken from the donated eyes of dead people may be able to give sight to the blind, researchers suggest. Tests in rats, reported in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, showed the human cells could restore some vision to completely blind rats. The team at University College London said similar results in humans would improve quality of life, but would not give enough vision to read. Human trials should begin within three years. Donated corneas are already used to improve some people's sight, but the team at the Institute for Ophthalmology, at UCL, extracted a special kind of cell from the back of the eye. These Muller glia cells are a type of adult stem cell capable of transforming into the specialised cells in the back of the eye and may be useful for treating a wide range of sight disorders. In the laboratory, these cells were chemically charmed into becoming rod cells which detect light in the retina. Injecting the rods into the backs of the eyes of completely blind rats partially restored their vision. Brain scans showed that 50% of the electrical signals between the eye and the brain were recovered by the treatment. One of the researchers, Prof Astrid Limb, told the BBC what such a change would mean in people: "They probably wouldn't be able to read, but they could move around and detect a table in a room. BBC © 2014
Madhusree Mukerjee By displaying images on an iPad, researchers tested patients' ability to detect contrast after their vision was restored by cataract surgery. 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 Sciences1, Kalia and her collaborators followed 11 children enrolled in Project Prakash2, 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.) © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Mantis shrimp's super colour vision debunked Jessica Morrison Mantis shrimp don’t see colour like we do. Although the crustaceans have many more types of light-detecting cell than humans, their ability to discriminate between colours is limited, says a report published today in Science1. Researchers found that the mantis shrimp’s colour vision relies on a simple, efficient and previously unknown mechanism that operates at the level of individual photoreceptors. The results upend scientists' suspicions that the shrimp, with 12 different types of colour photoreceptors, could see hues that humans, with just 3, could not, says study co-author Justin Marshall, a marine neuroscientist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. When the human eye sees a yellow leaf, photoreceptors send signals to the brain announcing relative levels of stimuli: receptors sensitive to red and green light report a lot of activity, whereas receptors sensitive to blue light report little. The brain compares the information from each type of receptor to come up with yellow. Using this system, the human eye can distinguish between millions of different colours. To test whether the mantis shrimp, with its 12 receptors, can distinguish many more, Marshall's team trained shrimp of the species Haptosquilla trispinosa to recognize one of ten specific colour wavelengths, ranging from 400 to 650 nanometres, by showing them two colours and giving them a frozen prawn or mussel when they picked the right one. In subsequent testing, the shrimp could discriminate between their trained wavelengths and another colour 50–100 nanometres up or down the spectrum. But when the difference between the trained and test wavelengths was reduced to 12–25 nanometres, the shrimp could no longer tell them apart. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Want to read someone’s mind? Look at their pupils. A person about to answer “yes” to a question, especially if they are more used to answering “no,” will have more enlarged pupils than someone about to answer “no,” according to a new study. Normally, pupils dilate when a person is in a darkened environment to let more light into the eye and allow better vision. But pupil size can also be altered by levels of signaling chemicals naturally produced by the brain. In the study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists observed the pupils of 29 people as they pressed a “yes” or “no” button to indicate whether they’d seen a difficult-to-detect visual cue on a screen in front of them. When a person was deciding how to answer—in the seconds before pressing a button—their pupils grew larger. And if a person was normally biased toward answering “no” when they weren’t sure on the visual cue, then the pupil change was even more profound in the decision-making seconds before a “yes” answer. The finding could lead to new ways to detect people’s intrinsic biases and how confident they are in an answer given, important variables in many sociological and psychological studies. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
|By Stephanie Pappas The justices of the Supreme Court may be among the best legal minds in the country, but they have no eye for distances — and new research may help explain why. During oral arguments Wednesday (Jan. 15) in a case about the constitutionality of laws prohibiting protestors from gathering close to abortion clinic entrances, the justices were stumped at the size of the 35-foot-long (10.6 meters) buffer zone in question. "It's pretty much this courtroom, kind of," ABC News quoted Associate Justice Elena Kagan as saying. In fact, the courtroom is more than 90 feet (30 m) long. After a back-and-forth discussion, the deputy solicitor arguing the case clarified that the no-go zone is the size of the 3-point zone on an NBA basketball court. But judging distances and depth may be trickier than it seems. A recent study, published Oct. 23 in the Journal of Neuroscience, finds that people's depth perception depends on their perception of their arm's length. Trick someone into thinking their arm is shorter or longer, and you can influence how they perceive distances between two objects. Depth perception, the ability to judge the distances of objects from one another, is an important ability; without it, one would have no way of knowing that a marble in their hand and a basketball 6 feet away were actually two different sizes. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 19165 - Posted: 01.25.2014
Ian Sample, science correspondent Two men with progressive blindness have regained some of their vision after taking part in the first clinical trial of a gene therapy for the condition. The men were among six patients to have experimental treatment for a rare, inherited, disorder called choroideremia, which steadily destroys eyesight and leaves people blind in middle age. After therapy to correct a faulty gene, the men could read two to four more lines on an optician's sight chart, a dramatic improvement that has held since the doctors treated them. One man was treated more than two years ago. The other four patients, who had less advanced disease and good eyesight before the trial, had better night vision after the therapy. Poor sight in dim light is one of the first signs of the condition. Writing in The Lancet , doctors describe the progress of the patients six months after the therapy. If further trials are as effective, the team could apply for approval for the therapy in the next five years. Some other forms of blindness could be treated in a similar way. Toby Stroh, 56, a solicitor from London, was in his early 20s when a consultant told him he would be blind by the age of 50. "I said 'what do you mean?' and he said, 'you won't be able to see me'. It was a long way away, but still a bit of a shock." Stroh was told later that his vision had deteriorated so much he would have to stop driving. Then, when he joined a solicitors' firm he told a partner his eyesight was not expected to last. The response was: "We'll be sorry to see you go." © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 19143 - Posted: 01.16.2014
by Anil Ananthaswamy Next time you happen to be snorkelling near a coral reef, keep an eye out for mantis shrimp. In all likelihood, these crustaceans, which resemble small lobsters, will have spotted you: they scan their surroundings with rapid eye movements just like those of primates. Justin Marshall of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and colleagues have been studying mantis shrimp for years, and it is how they use their eyes that interests Marshall. Their eyes are on stalks and can dart around. Humans use similar rapid eye movements, called saccades, to "acquire" or lock on to new objects, and to track them as they move. "It was not clear whether the shrimp eye movements were anything to do with acquiring objects, or just repositioning the eyes," Marshall says. To find out, the team placed mantis shrimp in a perspex tube inside an aquarium, and suddenly introduced a small coloured disc into their line of sight. A camera outside the aquarium filmed their eyes. The team found that the mantis shrimp's fovea – the part of the eye with the highest resolution – was using saccades to home in on the coloured disc. This sort of behaviour is normally found in animals like primates, says Marshall. The saccadic eye movements are extremely rapid. Human saccades can sweep through a field of view at a rate of 200-300 degrees per second. "[Mantis shrimp] are actually going up to twice that amount," says Marshall. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 19113 - Posted: 01.09.2014
By Susana Martinez-Conde If you’re a bit lax with your post-holiday brushing, this little-known illusion may give you the incentive you need to keep those candy canes in check, or at least brush and floss afterwards. Vision scientist Robert O’Shea and his colleagues published a recent study in PLoS One showing that dentists can fall prey to a visual illusion of size and make larger holes in teeth than needed. The illusion fooling the dentists is a variant of a classical perceptual phenomenon known as the Delboeuf illusion, named after its creator, the Belgian natural philosopher, experimentalist, mathematician and hypnotist Joseph Remi Leopold Delboeuf. The scientists supplied 8 specialist dentists and endodontists, who served as experimental subjects, with a large pool of extracted teeth. The teeth contained holes, and the task of the dentists was to cut cavities in preparation for filling. Unknown to the dentists, each tooth presented a more or less powerful version of the Delboeuf illusion, making the holes appear smaller than their actual size. The results showed that the smaller the holes looked, the larger the cavities that the dentists made for later filling. The researchers recommend that dentists and other health practitioners receive training in “illusion awareness” (my words, not theirs), so that they may counteract these and related perceptual effects. © 2013 Scientific American,
Link ID: 19073 - Posted: 12.28.2013
By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online Scientists say they have been able to successfully print new eye cells that could be used to treat sight loss. The proof-of-principle work in the journal Biofabrication was carried out using animal cells. The Cambridge University team says it paves the way for grow-your-own therapies for people with damage to the light-sensitive layer of tissue at back of the eye - the retina. More tests are needed before human trials can begin. At the moment the results are preliminary and show that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells. These are the cells that transmit information from the eye to certain parts of the brain, and provide support and protection for neurons. The printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture. Co-authors of the study Prof Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: "The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function. Human eye The retina sits at the back of the eye BBC © 2013
By Phil Plait Our brains are massively complex machines, constantly processing huge amounts of data from our senses. Our eyes provide most of that input; they send a huge amount of information to the brain, and it’s actually rather astonishing we can figure anything out from it. Given that, our ability to detect motion is pretty amazing. Despite all that noise, if something moves, something changes, our brain targets right on it. To see motion, you need at least two objects, so that one can move relative to the other. Sometimes, one of those objects is you. If you turn your head, the room you’re sitting in looks like it’s turning the other way. But our brain compensates for that; it “knows” it’s moving, so you perceive the room as motionless. But this works the other way, too: You can make the brain think something is moving even when it’s not. That’s the principle behind this wonderful optical illusion video created by brusspup: Isn’t that great? Your brain will swear those drawings are moving, even when you can see they are not. Even the cat was fooled! This video looks fantastically complicated, but the way it works is actually pretty simple. Basically, it’s fooling your brain into ignoring the thing that is moving, and making it look like the motionless thing is what’s doing the moving. © 2013 The Slate Group, LLC.
Link ID: 19040 - Posted: 12.17.2013
By Melissa Hogenboom Science reporter, BBC News Changes to specific cells in the retina could help diagnose and track the progression of Alzheimer's disease, scientists say. A team found genetically engineered mice with Alzheimer's lost thickness in this layer of eye cells. As the retina is a direct extension of the brain, they say the loss of retinal neurons could be related to the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer's. The findings were revealed at the US Society for Neuroscience conference. The team believes this work could one day lead to opticians being able to detect Alzheimer's in a regular eye check, if they had the right tools. Alterations in the same retinal cells could also help detect glaucoma - which causes blindness - and is now also viewed as a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's, the researchers report. Scott Turner, director of the memory disorders programme at Georgetown University Medical Center, said: "The retina is an extension of the brain so it makes sense to see if the same pathologic processes found in an Alzheimer's brain are also found in the eye." Dr Turner and colleagues looked at the thickness of the retina in an area that had not previously been investigated. This included the inner nuclear layer and the retinal ganglion cell layer. They found that a loss of thickness occurred only in mice with Alzheimer's. The retinal ganglion cell layer had almost halved in size and the inner nuclear layer had decreased by more than a third. BBC © 2013
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has many hidden skills—it can sniff out insects buried 20 cm underground, for example, and jump more than a meter into the air when startled. Seeing, however, is not one of its natural talents. Because its eyes lack light-detecting cells called cones, it has fuzzy, colorless vision. The light-receptive cells that an armadillo does have, called rods, are so sensitive that daylight renders the nocturnal animals practically blind. But the deficit may have a silver lining for humans. To study diseases that cause blindness in people, scientists typically genetically “knock out” cone-related genes in animals like mice. Such studies are limited, because they examine only one gene at a time, when a number of different genes contribute to cone dysfunction, researchers say. By comparing the armadillo gene to other closely related mammals, a team of scientists has now identified several cone-related genes in the armadillo genome that became nonfunctional millions of years ago, they report today at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California. This makes the animals "excellent candidates" for gene therapy experiments that could restore color vision and point the way to potential human treatments, they say. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—How do we recognize emotions in the facial expressions of others? A small, almond-shaped structure called the amygdala, located deep within the brain (yellow in image above), plays a key role, but exactly what it responds to is unclear. To learn more, neuroscientists implanted electrodes into the amygdalae of seven epileptic patients who were about to undergo brain surgery for their condition. They recorded the activity of 200 single amygdala neurons and determined how they responded while the patients viewed photographs of happy and fearful faces. The team found a subset of cells that distinguish between what the patients thought to be happy and fearful faces, even when they perceived ambiguous facial expressions incorrectly. (The team carefully manipulated some of the photos of fearful faces, so that some of the subjects perceived them as being neutral.) The findings, presented here yesterday at the 43rd annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, suggest that amygdala neurons respond to the subjective judgement of emotions in facial expressions, rather than the visual characteristics of faces that convey emotions. The scientists also found that the cellular responses persisted long after each of the photographs disappeared, further suggesting that the amygdala cooperates with other brain regions to create awareness of the emotional content of faces. Thus, when it comes to recognizing the facial expressions of others, what we think we see seems to be more important than what we actually see. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Ewen Callaway Children with autism make less eye contact than others of the same age, an indicator that is used to diagnose the developmental disorder after the age of two years. But a paper published today in Nature1 reports that infants as young as two months can display signs of this condition, the earliest detection of autism symptoms yet. If the small study can be replicated in a larger population, it might provide a way of diagnosing autism in infants so that therapies can begin early, says Warren Jones, research director at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Jones and colleague Ami Klin studied 110 infants from birth — 59 of whom had an increased risk of being diagnosed with autism because they had a sibling with the disorder, and 51 of whom were at lower risk. One in every 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the most recent survey by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. At ten regular intervals over the course of two years, the researchers in the new study showed infants video images of their carers and used eye-tracking equipment and software to track where the babies gazed. “Babies come into the world with a lot of predispositions towards making eye contact,” says Jones. “Young babies look more at the eyes than at any part of the face, and they look more at the face than at any part of the body.” Twelve children from the high-risk group were diagnosed with an ASD — all but two of them boys — and one male from the low-risk group was similarly diagnosed. Between two and six months of age, these children tended to look at eyes less and less over time. However, when the study began, these infants tended to gaze at eyes just as often as children who would not later develop autism. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
by Flora Graham These specs do more than bring blurry things into focus. This prototype pair of smart glasses translates visual information into images that blind people can see. Many people who are registered as blind can perceive some light and motion. The glasses, developed by Stephen Hicks of the University of Oxford, are an attempt to make that residual vision as useful as possible. They use two cameras, or a camera and an infrared projector that can detect the distance to nearby objects. They also have a gyroscope, a compass and GPS to help orient the wearer. The collected information can be translated into a variety of images on the transparent OLED displays, depending on what is most useful to the person sporting the shades. For example, objects can be made clearer against the background, or the distance to obstacles can be indicated by the varying brightness of an image. Hicks has won the Royal Society's Brian Mercer Award for Innovation for his work on the smart glasses. He plans to use the £50,000 prize money to add object and text recognition to the glasses' abilities. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Cheryl G. Murphy Is it possible that our vision can affect our taste perception? Let’s review some examples of studies that claim to have demonstrated that sometimes what we see can override what we think we taste. From wine to cheese to soft drinks and more it seems that by playing with the color palette of food one can trick our palates into thinking we taste things that aren’t necessarily there. © 2013 Scientific American