More than meets the eye

By | Science & Technology
A group of biohackers based in California recently developed eye drops which, when inserted into the human eye, augment users with night vision. Credit@Bart

A group of biohackers in California claim to have designed a way to enhance human eyes with night vision (or at least low-light vision). The independent ‘citizen science’ research group, Science for the Masses (SfM), developed the “superpower” after researching the naturally occurring molecule Chlorin e6 (Ce6).

Ce6 is a human-safe compound found in certain deep-sea fish that enables them to see in the dark, though it may also be easily extracted from live chlorella (a species of single-cell green algae) and other green plants. It may also be used to treat night blindness and has been used for many years as a therapy agent in cancer treatment. Animal models have previously been inoculated with Ce6 as a photosensitiser to improve dim light vision. Researchers at SfM aimed to take this a step further, transferring night vision to the human eye. “After doing the research, you have to take the next step,” says Jeffrey Tibbetts, SfM’s medical officer. As a result, SfM’s biochemistry researcher, Gabriel Licina, volunteered himself as the experiment’s guinea pig.

To begin, Licina’s eyes were flushed with saline to remove any microdebris and his eyelids held open with a speculum. Tibbetts then used a pipette to apply three doses of 50 microlitres of the night vision solution to each of Licina’s eyes (specifically the conjunctival sacs). The team used a mixture of Ce6, insulin, saline and dimethlysulfoxide (DMSO). Pressure was applied to prevent the liquid leaking into the nasal region. Each dose was allowed to absorb between every application, with the black colour fading away after a few seconds. Licina mentioned, “To me, it was a quick, greenish-black blur across my vision, and then it dissolved into my eyes.” Black sclera lenses were then placed onto Licina’s eyes and dark sunglasses worn to reduce the potential of light entering the eye.

Jeffrey Tibbetts applying the eye drops using a micropipette instead of an eyedropper in increase precision. Credit@SciencefortheMasses

Jeffrey Tibbetts applying the eye drops to Gabriel Licina using a micropipette instead of an eyedropper to increase precision. Credit@SciencefortheMasses

Two hours later, Licina and four control volunteers were taken to a darkened area and underwent a number of subjective tests. Initially, Licina was able to see small shapes 10 metres away and, with time, was able to recognise symbols (numbers, letters, shapes) and objects against varied backgrounds and distances. To examine their ability to recognise people, the individuals were sent into a small grove of trees and allowed to choose their own location 25 to 50 metres from the observation point. Each subject was given a laser pointer to identify the location of people hidden in the darkness of the grove. Licina was apparently able to correctly identify the others’ locations every time while the control subjects identifed people successfully only one third of the time. “We had people go stand in the woods,” Licina said, “At 50 metres, I could figure who they were, even if they were standing up [in front of] a tree.”

The night vision effect reportedly lasted a few hours. By the morning, Licina’s eyesight appeared to have returned to normal and 20 days later is without side effects.The team note that further testing is required to objectively quantify the level of Licina’s reported night vision capabilities. Nevertheless, the current results are a strong indicator of the success of this technique.

SfM are also launching the Human NIR Visual Perception Project. The SfM, along with a handful of collaborators, aim to tinker with human visual biology in order to extend the range of light humans are able to perceive. SfM hope to explore whether comprehending the universe through improved faculties might change their understanding of the environment – or at the very least provide a new way of seeing the world.

Tibbetts believes this study to be a true testament to the work that his organisation conducts. SfM scientists aim to pursue experiments that are feasible yet untouched by major corporations. Operating independently from universities, corporations and government agencies, his organisation is working to demystify the complexity and exclusivity of science, making it more accessible to the layperson. SfM aim to see the tools and resources necessary to carry out scientific research made available to anybody who might want them. In keeping with this ethos, SfM intend for all their research to be published free and open source and easily repeatable by citizen scientists or ‘DIY biologists’.

What other novel animal features might humans be scientifically capable of benefiting from?

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