What Can Blindness Teach Us About Vision?



Pawan Sinha, Ph.D., is on a mission to help discover what recovery from blindness teaches us about the development of vision.  At the Prakash Center for Children he has assembled has an impressive team, co-authoring this concept paper in Nature Neuroscience a couple of years ago.  One co-author’s name that caught my eye is Richard M. Held, Ph.D.  If that name is familiar to you, it may be because of the classic Held and Hein article involving kittens reared in passive vs. active visual environments.  Or, it may be because of Held’s collaboration with Mohindra at M.I.T. in studying the development of visual acuity in children with congenital cataracts.  I did a blog a few years back about Dr. Sinha’s work at M.I.T. that you can re-view here, and it featured this TED talk by Dr. Sinha in 2009:

Sci Am

I had recalled from the TED talk that Dr. Sinha noted the extent to which movement was crucial to vision development, so it would be natural for Dr. Held to lend his name and interests to the Prakash Center for Children.  What I had forgotten was Sinha’s mention around the 15 minute mark that his work might lead to a better understanding of the visual profile  of children with Autism.  I associated this with other authors.  This subject comes up again in the current issue of Scientific American, featuring an article by Pawan Sinha entitled Once Blind And Now They See:  Surgery In Blind Children From India Allows Them To See For The First Time And Reveals How Vision Works In The Brain.  Sinha writes (p. 54):  “Early results provide a launchpad for a rich set of new investigations, some of which may be quite far removed from blindness.  Based on the studies in Prakash, we are developing software for automatically discovering categories of visual objects in videos – faces, for instance.  Moreover, the kinds of deficits we have found in children integrating visual information soon after sight recovery bear similarities with those reported in studies of children with autism.  This tentative link has now unfolded into a series of studies in my laboratory that seek to probe the causes of sensory processing disorders in autism.”

This adds to a growing body of evidence that vision may serve as a gateway for understanding autism.  Ami Klin, a researcher who recently moved from Yale to head the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, has noted that young children with autism have difficulty in orienting toward human biological motion.

In his Scientific American article, referring to the capacity of a child trying to regain vision, Sinha notes:  Interestingly, this confusing soup of regions gelled into meaningful structure with the introduction of one particular visual cue: motion.  Images that were hopelessly confusing when static became interpretable when their constituent parts moved.  Videos of the child inspecting an image show an almost magical transformation brought about in response to motion.

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