Adonis Diaries

Archive for September 1st, 2017

Does the human eye prove that God exists?

Darwin was baffled by it; Christians see it as evidence of the divine. Will science ever unlock the secrets of the human eye?

When the body of Dr Yoshiki Sasai, an eminent Japanese biologist, was discovered in August this year, his death was widely mourned across the world of science.

Not just for the abrupt end to his glittering career – one which had seen him win several awards, including the 2010 Osaka Science Prize, and become the laureate of the 2012 Inoue Prize for Science.

Nor because of the tragic manner of his death: the 52-year-old was found hanged in his own laboratory – an apparent suicide after a scandal over a research paper he’d co-authored in January.

A close-up of the human eye

Flawless: a close-up of the human eye Photo: Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty
Chris Bell posted this  24 Sep 2014

Instead, the scientific world lamented what, perhaps, Dr Sasai was about to achieve.

As one of the directors at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, he was one of the world’s leading experts in stem cell technology. His team had pioneered incredible new techniques for creating organ-like structures – making giant strides towards a future where replacements for our failing human organs could be grown in a Petri dish.

And most tragically, the months before his death had heralded Sasai’s biggest achievement.

His team had already grown partial pituitary glands and even bits of the brain, but now he’d coaxed embryonic stem cells into forming the functioning tissue of arguably the most complex and scrutinised organ in the entire animal kingdom. Sasai had grown an eye.

And in doing so, he’d also helped resolve a scientific obsession that had lasted centuries.

In very basic form, the eye is thought to have first developed in animals around 550 million years ago.

But such is its perfect design – its infinite adaptability, and irreducible complexity – that many argue it is proof of the divine itself.

Darwin remarked that the whole idea of something so flawless “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

The eye has become a focal point for biologists, ophthalmologists, physicists and many other branches of science ever since. So when the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal made the first anatomical diagrams of neurons and the retina in 1900, it stoked a century of biologists attempting to unlock the eye’s secrets.

And there have been several discoveries. Unlike our ears and nose, for example, which never stop growing our entire lives, our eyes remain the same size from birth.

Then there’s the complicated process of irrigation, lubrication, cleaning and protection that happens every time we blink – an average of 4,200,000 times a year.

Dr Yoshiki Sasai, the late Japanese biologist who was building a human eye in his lab (Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty)

And there are other astonishing inbuilt systems too.

Take, for example, a little trick called the Vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). In short, it’s our own personal Steadicam – an inbuilt muscular response that stabilises everything we see, by making tiny imperceptible eye movements in the opposite direction to where our head is moving.

Without VOR, any attempts at walking, running – even the minuscule head tremors you make while you read these words – would make our vision blurred, scattered and impossible to comprehend.

But while the inner workings of the eye continue to surprise scientists, the last decade has seen an unprecedented confluence of biology, technology and ophthalmic innovation. An international scientific endeavour that is not only finally unlocking the eye’s true potential – but also how to counter, and ultimately cure, its biggest weaknesses.

One scientist leading the charge is Professor Chris Hammond, the Frost Chair of Ophthalmology at King’s College London. “I’ve been working in ophthalmology for nearly 25 years,” he says. “And I think we’re at a key moment. The pace of our genetic understanding, cell-based therapies and artificial devices for the treatment of eye disease is advancing faster than ever.”

His personal crusade – treating common conditions such as myopia, cataracts and glaucoma, as well as eye diseases – is, he says, slowly becoming possible.

“For example, we’re finally starting to understand some of the mechanism of these diseases – how genetic and environmental risk factors, and not ageing, might be significant. And with some of the rarer diseases, we’re starting to look at actual cures.

“We are also understanding more and more about the processing that is already being done within the retina, before signals are sent to the brain. And with the amazing abilities we have today for imaging, the emerging technologies are exciting too.”

With much fanfare, the first bionic eye debuted last year.

Developed by Second Sight Medical Products, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System consists of 60 electrodes implanted in the retina, and glasses fitted with a special mini-camera. Costing €73,000 (£58,000) to install, it then sends images – albeit very low-resolution shapes – to the user’s brain. Which means people with degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa can differentiate between light and dark, or make out basic shapes such as doorways.

“In terms of devices like these, we are still at the very crude technology stage,” says Prof Hammond. “They’re only really of use to people who are completely blind. But the thing about technology is that it evolves with amazing speed.”

Less invasive, “wearable” optic gadgetry is catching up fast.

Although still in its infancy, the ability to mount microelectronics within a contact lens is already offering huge potential. Take the Sensimed Triggerfish, for example – a curiously-named soft, disposable silicone lens with a micro-sensor that continuously monitors the shape and pressure of your eyeball, ideal for monitoring the progress of treatment or post-surgical health.

Other lenses are coming on the market too.

In January this year Google announced a lens that tests the level of glucose in the tears of diabetes sufferers, eliminating the finger prick test commonly used several times each day by many diabetics. Others are planned that actually secrete precise dosages of drugs continuously into your system via your eye – even when you’re asleep.

And then the barrier between technology and sci-fi begins to blur.

Already, millions of tiny miniaturised telescopes, known as intraocular lenses, are implanted in patients’ eyes following cataract surgery, to help with the focusing of light into the eye. But the launch of Glass, Google’s web-enhanced spectacles, has prompted research into mounting microelectronic elements onto the polymer of a contact lens itself.

Already mooted, again by the Google X development lab, is a contact lens camera – a boon for, if no one else, the paparazzi.

With enough digital storage capacity, we could record our entire visual experience in real time. But the new “wonder-material” graphene offers greater potential.

As University of Maryland researchers announced in early September, graphene’s broad wavelength sensitivity enables it to detect light frequencies 100 times broader than the normal visible spectrum. And when incorporated into a contact lens, it could allow the wearer to see ultraviolet and infra-red light.

And other scientists are working on mounting suitable optical elements to project information directly into your eyeball, like fighter-jet style “head-up display”.

A team at the University of Washington debuted a bionic contact lens with a single-pixel display in 2011;

by 2012 the display had increased to a whopping eight pixels. If we end up being able to project images and even videos directly into your eye, you may never have to leave the house for a business meeting or theatre production again.

If all this feels a bit like the futuristic Tom Cruise film Minority Report, then think again – because, well, aspects of that are already happening. Thanks to New York company Eyelock, the concept of scanning a person’s iris from afar for ID purposes is now a reality. As Jeff Carter, Eyelock’s Chief Technology Officer, explains: “Today your identity can be determined from across the room while you’re at a full run – even if you’re wearing a mask, or a wig, or sunglasses – to within a one-in-a-quadrillion certainty that you are who you say you are.”

The Eyelock works by photographing your eyes using a high-resolution camera, then combines 240 unique points on each iris to generate an encrypted code. “To authenticate your ID, our technology matches the code with your eyes,” says Carter confidently. “It’s roughly 2,000 times more powerful than a fingerprint. Only DNA is more accurate.”

The individual uniqueness of each eye’s iris – the pattern of lines, dots and colours that surround the pupil – was first noted by Hippocrates in 390 BC.

Even today, its infinite complexity still compels our interest. The plot of writer/director Mike Cahill’s new sci-fi film I Origins, for example, follows a biologist attempting to find an identical pair – and how his discovery has implications for his scientific and spiritual beliefs.

But it’s only with our modern concerns over security, access and identify fraud that the iris’ potential for a foolproof identification system has been realised. Already, for example, over half of India’s population have had their irises scanned as part of a groundbreaking nationwide identity scheme known as UIDAI.

“This year a report by Intel Security estimated the annual worldwide cost of cybercrime to be more than $445 billion,” says Carter. “But [iris scanning] could mean no more credit cards, no more driver’s license, no more passports, no more user IDs or passwords… our everyday lives can be made simpler, better, more seamless and secure.”

And now scientists are delving deeper into the eye than ever before. One widely held belief for decades was that the eye was just a basic, dumb camera. That light would hit the retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue lining the inner surface of the eye), and electrical signals would then be swiftly transmitted back to the brain where all the heavy visual processing took place.

Science and spirituality meet in the new film I Origins

It’s only in the last few years that researchers have discovered the retina is doing a huge amount of pre-processing itself – and that as light passes through the retina’s several dense layers of neurons, a lot of detail like colour, motion, orientation and brightness are determined.

And so a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have started work on a formidable task: intricately mapping this vast network of millions upon millions of neurons to see how they connect and process visual information.

“A huge amount is known about optics and the muscles around the eyes,” says Claire O’Connell, an MIT fellow on the project. “But the retina is the great unknown territory. It’s one of the most complex tissues in the human body.”

And that was the problem: with retinal tissue resembling, well, extremely tangled spaghetti, much of this neuron mapping proved too complex for computers, and had to be done manually – a task estimated to take upwards of 15 years. And so, the team hit on an unusual solution: they made it into a game.

In December 2012, Eyewire was launched – a web-based puzzle game that now boasts over 120,000 players from 150 countries.

“Believe it or not, it was inspired by Angry Birds,” says O’Connell, who helped design Eyewire. “We wondered if the thousands of hours people put into games like that could be used to crowd-source how the retina works at a cellular level. And it turns out it can.”

So now, instead of killing pigs with a deftly placed parrot, players can register at eyewire.org for a different kind of challenge – examining 3D electron microscope scans of neural matter and tracing the path of neurons within it. A few clicks later, an entire neuron, plus its connections, can be identified. And better still, no medical knowledge is required. “There’s a regular player we have called Crazyman,” says Claire. “He’s 16 and from Bulgaria, and he sometimes spends 23 hours in a row helping us in this quest – it’s awesome!

“The game as a whole has been a huge success. Mapping out the precise synaptic connections from one cell type to another would take us two weeks in the lab, but now we can do it in a day. Already, Eyewire has identified the areas responsible for motion detection. The more we discover about the eye, the more amazing it becomes.”

And now scientists are stood at a new threshold: the creation of a biological eye itself, that most complex of all bodily organs. Despite the untimely death of Dr Sasai, his colleagues at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology announced a new scientific first on September 12: the successful implantation of new retinal tissue, grown for the first time from stem cells, into the eyes of a Japanese woman in her 70s suffering from encroaching blindness.

It could prove to be the first step in eradicating loss of sight in humans for good. But restraint is imperative, cautions Prof Hammond. “The hope is blindness will be a thing of the past in a few years’ time – but we have to be careful about overstating what we can do,” he says.

“The teams in Japan have done fantastic work which holds great promise in terms of creating replacement cells,” he says. “The big problem, however, is how we connect the eye to the brain, and to the relevant pathways in the brain. From that point of view, we’re still in very early days.”

But one thing is certain: in terms of solving the eternal mystery of the eye, and curing the frailties that its infinite complexities present, we have never been more focused. And the future, once dim, is significantly brighter – a sentiment that Dr Sasai echoed in one of his final interviews before his death. “We really don’t know where we are going with this,” he said then. “We really are at the final frontier, facing an unknown world.”

I Origins opens the Raindance Film Festival on September 24, and is on general release from September 26

01 Nov 2013

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Notes and tidbits on FB and Twitter. Part 58

Camp David of (Clinton, Arafat and Ehud Barak) had 3 premises for a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestinians. Jerusalem: “What is Arab is Palestinian and what is Jewish is Israel” Israel picked up on that premise and Israel decided to fail the negotiation and pressured Clinton Not to pursue it: 20 years later, Israel hoarded lands inside and around Jerusalem, by all means.

Palestinians in Jerusalem won’t find a piece of land for a municipality. 

Yuval Noah Harari in his latest book “Homo Deus” argues that humanity’s progress toward bliss, immortality, and divinity is bound to be unequal—some people will leap ahead, while many more are left behind

Maimez-vous? Ce qui veut dire: voyez-vous la meme vérité? Par occasion, quand ta vérité me convainque

Suppose “Elite” class worldwide with plenty of money, privileges, connections…manages to give birth to totally healthy babies, healthy till late age, live without daily worries though “third party” and AI robots… what kinds of purposes could they invent for their life?

Elite class will get addicted to something like gambling, hard drugs, “immoral behaviors”, indifferent opinions, serial murderer of everyone disturbing their comfort zone, getting favourite seats to every event, driving like crazy on closed circuits, bungee jumping everyday, sky diving, acquiring more wealth by aggressive financial risk taking and monopolies in order to head the list of the richest families…

But this is Not the future the way elite classes abuse of their privileges: It has been going on for more than a century.

La catastrophe des galleries de mines de Courriéres ensevelie 1,100 mineurs. La mére de Louise Weiss dit au pére: Qu’attend-tu pour partir ? (le pére etait ingénieur des mines). Le pére: Je ne tient pas de l’administration l’autorité nécessaire. La mere: Il n’y a pas d’administration qui tienne quand les vies humaines sont en jeu. Le pére: Les ingénieurs qui se trouve en place peuvent réussir mieux que moi. La mere: Il ne suffit pas que tu le crois.

La mere: J’ai pris ma part de responsibilite’ professionnel en t’épousant. Et elle l’accompagna á la gare du Nord. Le pére réussit a extraire 14 mineurs en pregnant la direction des ingénieurs désorientés et affaiblis.

Qatar is drinking from the same poisonous cup that It made Syria drink: Soon, Qatar might be kicked out of the infamous and useless “Arab Summits”

Girls go into frequent accelerated terrible and painful physical metamorphoses than boys go through. The nervousness accompanying this mind-boggling growth is contagious to the entire family. Girls must be informed early on what to expect and consequences.

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they have been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” #Muhamad_Ali #Respect


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