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Two Scientists Launch A Dark Room Experiment To Cure Lazy Eye


You may never have heard of it, but 14 million Americans, 280 million people around the world, suffer from a visual condition known as amblyopia. They have trouble seeing because the visual part of their brain basically got its wires crossed at birth. Glasses can fix the problem for small children, but after a certain age, that messed-up wiring can't be reset. But there's potentially good news. Two scientists think they're on the way to a cure. And it all started when one of them, Ben Backus, a professor at SUNY College of Optometry in Manhattan, heard about an experiment with animals.

BEN BACKUS: When you take an adult animal and put it into complete darkness for three to 10 days, its visual system becomes plastic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Plastic is science speak for able to be changed. So Backus came up with an idea, to put adults with amblyopia in complete darkness. That darkness, he hoped, would act like a reset button for the adult brain, just like it had for the animals. Now, Backus knew before he could ask random volunteers to endure five days of complete darkness, he'd have to prove it was safe. So, all in the name of science, he decided that he was going to be the first subject of his experiment.

He completely blacked out one room in his apartment. Then he thought, hey, I'm probably not going to want to do this alone. He needed a partner. So imagine the callout - scientist seeks same for experiment in dark room isolation. It doesn't sound like it would have a lot of takers, right? But he found one. Morgan Williams, at the time, a psychology undergrad, volunteered to give up his 2012 spring break.

MORGAN WILLIAMS: I'd never really had a lot of proclivity for going to the beach.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So food and visitors were delivered via an adjacent darkened room called the light lock, sort of like an airlock on a spaceship. But aside from those few interruptions, Ben Backus and Morgan Williams just killed time together for five days, unable to see a thing.

WILLIAMS: You know, we became friends, certainly.

BACKUS: Morgan and I talked a lot. We listened to books on tape. He plays the ukulele and I play the cello so we had a jam session in the dark. That was really fun. And we had a visit from the cat that was a, like, a high point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the end, they learned some lessons.

BACKUS: Well, obviously, we won't have knives in the space. We won't serve alcohol. I had a glass of wine and I ended up in a closet instead of the bathroom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And after five days of complete darkness, they were reintroduced to the world.

BACKUS: The main initial thing was we were extremely sensitive to light. And so we had to wear dark glasses. Colors were intense. Everything was like you had turned the sharp knob way up in Photoshop or something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Their eyesight did get back to normal and now they're ready to try the experiment with real, live volunteers. They're recruiting right now. They need adults with amblyopia, brave ones.

BACKUS: The best analogy we could think of was really an astronaut who has to go on a mission and maybe they're 10 days in space.

WILLIAMS: We're looking for participants, but ultimately we're looking to recruit crew members.

BACKUS: We're calling them scotonauts (ph). Scoto is the Greek word for dark. So these are sailors in the dark.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Ben Backus and Morgan Williams. You can learn more at projectluma.org. That's LUMA spelled L-U-M-A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.