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Mammalian Near-IR Vision Through Injectable, Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantennae (cell.com)
153 points by mhb 49 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

I’ve read the study just now - it does appear that:

a) The chemical put into the retina is surprisingly biocompatible, in that it does not appear to have caused anything out of the ordinary to happen. It works by effectively converting IR light to visible light - so it does not involve ‘sending more data’ to the brain, or ‘opening another colour band’ or anything like that. It is seen as just plain old green light, because the crystal structure of the chemical basically converts 980nm~ IR to 500~nm visible green light. So no uber-neurohacking going on here.

b) The procedure they are using to put the chemical in place is fairly run-of-the-mill medical procedure for humans for treatment of eye diseases, albeit a little icky.

So, I’m surprised, to say the least, but this could actually work with humans as a fairly harmless enhancement. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but haven’t seen one in the study itself for the time being. (Disclosure: not an expert, but I follow related fields)

Wow this is awesome. I bet they could design a different particle to fix some kinds of colorblindness, for example by blocking/converting the wavelengths of light that tend to be confused between red and green.

> does not involve ... ‘opening another colour band’

That's not so obvious to me. If this chemical were uniformly spread across the retina, then I'd agree. But if it's sufficiently clumpy, or ideally attached to every second green-sensitive cone, then it absolutely would give (N+1)-colour vision (N=3 in humans). On first glance I can't figure out what the paper has to say about this distribution... and even if it were uniform in their mice, perhaps the next step would be to make it non-uniform somehow.

The earlier way to do something similar was by genetically altering some cells, [1]. If you inject a virus (carrying the modification) at a low concentration, then you do get just half the cells. Then the brain learns (in a few weeks) which cells are now giving what information, and you get more colours. [1] did this in monkeys, IIRC they are N=2 and the virus added the gene for one of the human receptors. I don't think it was safe enough for humans.

[1] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/gene-th...

still it would not be possible to discriminate if the green that i see is normal green or IR green. it would be rather obvious in the night, when color cones are not used, but during the day it would be confusing. I 'm thinking "Aww that s a beautiful tree ... oh , it's a trash fire"

No, that's exactly what the monkeys learned to discriminate. After a few weeks they pass monkey-specific colour-blindness tests, which wild-type monkeys cannot.

I don't think you are born with different wiring to the three different kinds of cones, your brain just learns to lump all the red ones together, so that a red object stays the same colour in different parts of your visual field. The claim is that the monkeys learned which of the previously-identical cones now had a new colour.

yes it is possible to create objects that can discriminate between colorblind and wild type. but from the point of view of the colorblind person (the augmented person) it will still be a source of confusion.

Just to be clear, the point isn't that we can distinguish which monkeys are treated, it's that the monkeys can distinguish many colours which they could not before. The treated ones behave like trichromats.

Do they lose any sleep philosophising about how these new colours are possible, and what to call them? Who knows. But I believe they can still do all the usual monkey things.

> it's that the monkeys can distinguish many colours which they could not before

That's the point they can not distinguish more colors. Their retinal cones still have the same spectral response. They cannot distinguish between a normal 500nm green leaf and a 900nm infrared source.

Ah, you mean the mice? In the near-IR study it's not clear (to me, yet) whether all the cones are altered, or just some of them. If all of them are altered, then for sure, same N=2 as normal mice.

The monkeys are in a different study, the one I linked a few posts above.

sorry i was referring to the nanoparticles. Indeed rhodopsins are used so routinely in neuroscience that one wonders why it has not been used to treat colorblindness in humans yet.

OK! I was told was that inserting genes with a virus like this had a tendency to cause cancer, which is why it wasn't done on humans (least of all for something not life-threatening). But I don't know if that is still accurate.

The nanoparticles sound to me like they could be safer? Would be interesting to know whether they can be non-uniformly spread, so that only half the green cones can see one.

I don't know enough about the subject matter to judge if this comment is correct or not, but it is polite, on-topic, and therefore shouldn't be downvoted.

Came to say exactly this, I read the paper several times and could not find any surface level issues. It might make things appear greener as they would get extra equivalent light by having both a visible and NIR component.

Given that, and the tactical advantage of seeing NIR in low light situations, someone is going to try this on people. And the results of that study could have a lot of impact.

Small but important correction: the chemical is injected into the retina, not the cornea.

I was thinking this was cool because if it works in the cornea, it could possibly be injected into a contact lens and achieve the same effect. But it looks like that won't work because the effect depends on the chemical being in (very) close proximity to photoreceptors in the retina.

That makes sense, it needs to be where the image is focused in order to produce more than just a haze or blur. If it was on the lens or cornea it'd probably just produce a washed out brighter background that made night-vision worse.

Fixed. Thank you!

Look at a bright enough 980 and you will see blue, I assume as it up-converts to 490. Not sure if it was the beam exapnder or my eyes...

Look at a bright enough 980 and you won't see anything else!

Very true. I find myself gently explaining laser safety way too often for comfort, even in lab environments. We don't have an intuitive understanding of the dangers. I my case, I knew the divergence and had calculated my expected wattage before taking a peek back downrange... but ya.

I knew someone that briefly turned on a laser engraver with their arm in it. Not sure of the wavelength, but she claimed to feel it go through and could smell burned flesh. It was fairly new tech at the time and the doctor couldn't tell her much. She had some mild tingling afterwards, but nothing major.

She didn't tell her boss because she had disabled the safety switch, for some reason that seemed good at the time.

Prob a CO2 laser, out at 10000nm. When discussing laser safety, the primary concern is eye damage. Burning flesh etc is bad, but that heals, and it takes way more energy. Eye damage is nearly instant, it does not heal, and lasers you can dig out of consumer electronics or buy >class 3b are hecka-capable of seriously injuring someone. Even the standard 3b lasers are no joke, and often output light outside the visible range in addition to the visible beam.

This is caused by a tech called Second harmonic generation, or frequency doubling.

"A process in which two photons with the same frequency interact with a nonlinear material, are "combined", and generate a new photon with twice the energy of the initial photons. In some cases, almost 100% of the light energy can be converted to the second harmonic frequency. These cases typically involving intense pulsed laser beams passing through large crystals, and careful alignment to obtain phase matching. In other cases, like second harmonic imaging microscopy, only a tiny fraction of the light energy is converted to the second harmonic."


Growing up watching Star Trek The Next Generation this is so cool to read about. Talk about Geordi Laforge vision. That part that I find so cool is seeing a lot of things that were mere dreams on Star Trek become real. Our smartphones are essentially tri-corders and now we could potentially get night vision.

Too bad the tricorder app got pulled from the Android store by Paramount due to trademark violations. Anyone know of a good version of a tricorder-like app that doesn't use the Star Trek LCARS theme?

There's an LCARS live wall on F-Droid App "Store" (F-Droid.org)

I wonder if/how it would interfere with normal vision. Could you mistake IR for normal green and vice versa, or would IR have some other characteristic that would distinguish it?

Are there situations where you'd run into lights that are intrusively (or even blindingly) bright in IR but not visible wavelengths?

Yes and yes. Standard NIR illuminators are everywhere. You would need context to distinguish that it's not green except I suspect it's a very specific green so your brain may be able to do interesting things with that knowledge.

Edit: looking at the emission charts, it's a wider bandwidth than I expected, not sure how well the brain would be able to use the specificity of the green.

Things that are normally just cool enough to not emit significant visible would suddenly be visible. It's far far from the standard 7-14um thermal IR, but would be... well.. downright awesome.

It might be possible to design a mixture of these to generate "impossible colors".

>It might be possible to design a mixture of these to generate "impossible colors".

Since they just convert light between frequencies, they won't show you any colors you couldn't see by illuminating your retina with the output frequencies the old fashioned way.

Agreed, I'm referring to type 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impossible_colors

If the treatment changes just green receptors then IR green would activate just those, but real green would activate all three receptors to various degrees. So maybe you could tell real green from IR green.

I wouldn't ordinarily be an early-adopter type when it comes to medical technology in my eyes of all places, but damn, IR vision. When this is ready for humans I'm going to have to think about it.

It would take very long years for this to become available to the public. I am sure we will hear many early-adopters' stories in the news which will make you rethink what you are thinking right now...

Now this is the kind of journal article title I expected in 2019.

"Negligible side effects" stood out to me because I remember reading in a few places [0] [1] that depriving oneself of Vitamin A can improve vision; but at a health risk. I've also heard that this is impossible. [2]. I wonder if these things are co-related somehow?

[0] -- https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajplegacy.1938.12...

[1] -- https://petapixel.com/2014/08/23/dietary-experiment-successf...

[2] -- https://petapixel.com/2014/08/25/retinal-neuroscientists-reb...

Wow, that sounds like quite the biohack!

As most of the biology stuff went over my head, I couldn't find if it is reversible though, they just mention it was "stable" at 10 weeks after injection, but is it expected to be working indefinitely? Can you wash it out somehow, if you later decide against it?

I wonder if some variation of this experiment would be useful for retina detachment, personal interest (my retina was completely detached and I was left with 0.60 vision in the left eye).

What's the effect of giving more information to the cells, would the brain use the extra information to self improve vision? In my case the right eye would be used for training the left one.

Another experiment I am thinking of, If a 3 month old child suffer a retina detachment, would his brain be able to recover the full vision by the brain making appropriate changes?

I wonder how well eye lens focuses NIR. And if it focuses NIR differently than visible light you'd have to choose between blurry IR green or blurry everything else.

I wonder if some military unit would be interested.

For night operations you could use 980 flashlights without the NIR headgear.

Is 980nm in the range of body heat radiation? In other words, would you be able to have "night vision" in full darkness by seeing the heat from animals?

No. Thermal vision is LWIR, far down the spectrum.

I’ve read that IR boosting contact lenses are already a thing, but that’s more gossip than knowledge.

For now I can only see downsides of this on healthy eyes. You would be constantly blinded and disturbed by various equipment, and your different vision compared to others would be the source of constant confusion and annoyance. What would be the use case for healthy patients in an urban environment?

If this was in a sci-fi action movie I would roll my eyes at the implausiblilty of it. If it actually works... Wow!

One step closer to "having the technology". Colonel Steve Austin would be proud.[0]


This was way before my time. Now I know where "We have the technology. We can rebuild him" comes from. Uncanny! Thanks for referencing, added to my entertainment TODO list :-)

IMHO, one of the best TV intro's ever.

"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better...stronger...faster."

Is that where Daft Punk got the lyrics too?

Wonder what the potential long-term psychological/physiological impact is...

Your brain would essentially be forced to constantly process more visual data than it was used to... more data than human brains in general had evolved to process.

Surely that has consequences.

Human sensorium is extremely flexible. The experiment I'm thinking of used subtle vibrating motors on a belt to indicate north, and people performed exactly as though they had suddenly acquired absolute directional sense with no awareness of the vibrations after a little acclimatization.

The other classic is "reverse vision" glasses that flip everything upside down. Takes about 2-6 weeks to rewire your brain, then everything appears normal... until you take them off.

While you probably have the right idea, about the possibility of there being downsides to something like this, I think you’re way off base with the detail you’ve opted to focus on.

Physiologically speaking, maybe the excess biochemical signaling could lead to fatigued pathways, chemical exhaust toxicity, cell death... but I think that could be overcome with a control plane that permits deactivation, so that you only use it selectively, and that passes the buck, leaving the burden of responsibility with the patient.

In practical use, I think subtle social consequences are a bigger accident waiting to happen, worth more attention than the subsequent, resulting inner well being (or lack thereof) of the post-op recipient.

Little things like having the ability to observe otherwise silent flatulence, notice residual keyboard heat, see through clothing, and perhaps even walls, watching dinner cook, that sort of thing would change the sense of self, sure. If it’s truly harmless, you’ll see an alarming level of adoption.

But it’s the arms race of being left behind, when seemingly the rest of the world gets something like this, and you can’t jump on the bandwagon, leading to an absurd amount of dangerous elective procedures that would likely become the bigger evil.

Suddenly ordinary just isn’t good enough, so what happens next?

Well, not necessarily - this treatment works by converting the near-IR light into green light which the eyes process normally.

If this did work in people, I would let a few waves of early adopters go first. It's a big open question as to how confusing things might be if you were IR/green colorblind.

Part of me feels like "Gimme gimme gimme! I want it _now!!!"

Another part of me is more thinking "I wonder what unexpected side effects we'll see when we have data from clinically controlled trials of large numbers of people using this technology over timespans of 40-50 years?"

Let me put it this way.

I was an early adopter of a simple sort of body modification - I had a small neodymium disc magnet sheathed in some inert material implanted in a finger.

It was cool and all, but I eventually got it removed because it was sensitive and if the inert sheath ever broke, it'd be bad news. Bodies don't like rare earth metals.

When I got it removed, the person who did it turned out to know the one who put it in (small world), and they told me that the new ones were tiny slivers which were almost impossible to feel, much less remove.

And that wasn't exactly comforting. Mine practically popped out, but a tiny sliver?

Nowadays, I think two or three times about those sorts of 'life hacks'.

Not sure why you're downvoted. Not only that, but when everyone is saying "harmless" and "biocomatible", I'm thinking about the sharp, highly incompatible stainless steel needle (aka 4-faced knife edge so big you can put a pipe inside it) they're using to slice through my RETINA.

No thanks. Not now, not ever.

We can handle it. Think of it like color blind and not and all the variations. Just another variation. https://www.popsci.com/article/science/woman-sees-100-times-...

Some small number of women are tetrachromatic, meaning they’re able to see 4 primary colors. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrachromacy

You can see into the ultraviolet today with a cataract procedure.


you ll still be receiving exactly the same amount of data from your photoreceptors, just more green than before.

one thing i wonder, is what happens when you sleep

This is an augmentation that I'd love to use but I also wonder if it's going to affect sleep. Am I going to see my eyelids when I close them? That would be bad. I hope we're not so hot to be seen by those receptors. Btw, if we are going to see the cornea that would affect vision at any time.

I think we could also use this to make people more colorblind.

Meh, I'm colorblind and I would do it for the option to see the world differently! First, though, I'd want some idea of how much the world would change.

I'm curious if a similar procedure could be used to correct for colorblindness by making one eye into the "red eye" and the other into the "green eye". Filtering and enhancing color frequencies as appropriate.

First instinct was to say no. Because you would only be able displace a color you can’t see to overlap with a color you can see, meaning you’re just shifting the color blindness around.

But the two eye solution is interesting.

I bet you could also do palette swaps for everything

You could do that with old fashioned tinted 3D movie glasses.

It's probably a good time to invest in the 980 nm-blocking sunglass industry.

So its kinda like putting small IR->visible light lenses into your cornea.

Excitingly interesting

Where do I sign up?

What we filter out and don't see is just as important as what we do. If we could see all wavelengths, we'd have just noise.

I agree w/ your first sentence.

But if we could "see all wavelengths", for any reasonable definition of "see", that would imply our eyes and brains had evolved to distinguish visual signal from noise.

Well, if you just switched that ability on, then yes. But if you grew up seeing more/all wavelengths, then presumably your brain might learn to use that information in a useful way?

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