How Can Science Help Reverse Blindness?

From bionic eyes to gene editing, how can we use science to bring back sight?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #302

Other studies are focused on whether or not 3D printers can get in on the action. Researchers have been able to print “an array of light receptors on a hemispherical surface” which is a first major step toward printing a bionic eye, perhaps making such a device more accessible and more efficient. And, of course, there is an app that allows you to see things as a bionic eye would see them from the National Vision Research Institute.

What Kinds of Blindness Are Avoidable?

Although many of these advances in technology are focused on blindness or eventual blindness that a patient is born with, 80% of all vision impairment cases are considered avoidable according to the World Health Organization. The WHO census finds the main causes of blindness or visual impairment globally to be cataract, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, corneal opacities, diabetic retinopathy, childhood blindness, and infectious eye diseases like trachoma or onchocerciasis. Instances of avoidable blindness are most common in south east Asia and the western Pacific, and least common in Europe and the Americas.

The cases are expected to double in the United States by 2050, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health, and also worldwide according to the World Health Organization. But don’t get too worried about your own eyes just yet. This estimated increase is likely due in large part to shifts in population demographics. Population growth in developing nations where visual impairment rates are higher tends to outpace that in developed nations. The fraction of the population over the age of 50 also continues to increase and 80% of people who are either blind or have moderate to severe vision problems are 50 years of age or older.

One very important initiative toward addressing these avoidable types of blindness is the charitable organization Hellen Keller International. HKI works to prevent avoidable blindness and also to improve the lives of the visually impaired through programs established by evidence-based research to combat the “causes and consequences of blindness.” Their research has shown direct links between malnutrition, lack of access to proper healthcare, and gender inequality to increased visual impairment in at-risk populations.  

Hellen Keller, who founded Hellen Keller International, was one of the most influential voices of the early 1900s. She famously became both blind and deaf before the age of two due to what is reported as an “acute congestion of the stomach and brain,” although a firm diagnosis has never been made. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her the concept of language and then how to communicate and eventually read and write. Hellen Keller became the first blind and deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree and fought for women’s suffrage and labor rights.

The legacy of Hellen Keller lives on in the efforts of Hellen Keller International to serve the most underprivileged communities suffering from visual impairment and through the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, of which she was a founding member.  

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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