Full or partial blindness, is a scary, debilitating condition, caused by damage to the optic nerve which carries impulses formed by the retina to the brain. Once damaged, the condition is irreversible … Or so doctors thought. That is, until a group of scientists recently succeeded in helping mice regain sight after destroying their optic nerves.
Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, and his team studied a group of mice as the scientists made their best efforts to repair the optic nerve. After crushing the optic nerve in one eye of each mouse, the extensions sent out by nerve cells from the eye to the brain began to shrivel, resulting in blindness. Huberman found, however, that a combination of nerve-growing chemicals and visual stimulation of the nerve encouraged the extensions, called axons, to re-stretch. Based on this new discovery, scientist were able to re-connect the extensions with the correct parts of the brain, effectively restoring vision to the mice.
Three weeks after the nerves were damaged, the axons appeared to be extending back into the brain from the eye. The mice experienced a 500-fold increase in axon regrowth after the scientist’s efforts, including exposing the mice to moving bars on a screen to keep damaged axons stimulated for extension. This is the first account of any such results.
This experiment led the scientists to conclude that neurons can, in fact, regenerate and form correct patterns to re-connect to the brain – something leaders in the field had often speculated. “Neurons remember the way home; they never forget,” says Huberman.
The next crucial step is for scientists to translate the results to blindness in humans. Huberman’s goal is to, “see something positive in humans within five years.” With the help of Huberman’s team and further research, the results of this ground-breaking study could spell hope for millions suffering full or partial blindness around the world. We look forward with anticipation to seeing this story develop in the coming years.
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