A radical new implant has restored vision to blind mice, offering hope to millions of sightless humans.
The mice's vision was good enough to distinguish a baby's face, see details of a scene in a park and track a moving image. The technique, using high-tech spectacles containing a tiny camera rather than surgery, could be tested on people for the first time in one to two years.
Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist from Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, who is honing the technique, says the ultimate hope is the blind will be able to "see patterned images, see faces, walk through the supermarket and pick out a box of cereal, recognise their children. This has all been thrilling".
The first beneficiaries are likely to be sufferers of age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness among the elderly. It affects half-a-million people and the figure is expected to treble in the next 25 years as the population ages, the Daily Mail reports.
There are few treatments and no cure for the condition, which makes it difficult or impossible to carry out everyday tasks such as reading, driving and watching television. Scientists have already created implantable chips that restore some vision. But Nirenberg says that her technique produces a much clearer picture. In fact, vision is close to normal.
Nirenberg has now worked out the coding for monkey's eyes. With the human eye relying on the same code, the first human trials could be just one to two years away. If the technique is shown to be safe and effective, it could be in widespread use five to seven years after that.