Chemical temporarily restores vision in blind mice

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Researchers from UC Berkeley, University of Munich and University of Washington have discovered a molecule that temporarily restores vision in blind mice.

Professor Richard Kramer from the campus Department of Molecular and Cell Biology said the researchers are trying to find a chemical derivative to restore visual function.

Currently, more than 3,000,000 Americans suffer from retinitis pigmentosa — an inherited eye disease due to the damage of the rod and cone photoreceptor cells in the retina — and age-related macular degeneration, according to the study, which was published Thursday in the science journal Neuron.

Acrylamide-azobenzene-quaternary ammonium, or AAQ, is the molecule that allows temporary restoration of vision.

“AAQ can change its form … if exposed to either short or long wavelengths of light, respectively,” said Aleksandra Polosukhina, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the visionary sciences graduate group, in an email. Thus, Polosukhina said, neurons can be activated and inactivated by the high or low exposures of light.

According to the study, research was conducted on the mice that were close to retina degeneration of their rod and cone photoreceptors.

Polosukhina also said once researchers imparted the AAQ molecule into the animals’ eyes, they were able to control its neuronal excitability in the retina. After the animals were treated with AAQ, they exhibited light-induced behavior similar to sighted animals.

There are some challenges, though, for AAQ to be administered to humans. According to the study, delivering AAQ through injections possibly every 12 to 24 hours would be hard for physicians and patients alike. A slow-release device, however, can have the potential to release a constant dose of drug in the eye over long periods of time.

Although the discovery does not mean a full cure for blindness, Polosukhina said she and her other colleagues conducting the neuroscientific research have hope that it will eventually put them on the path to finding a cure.

“(The AAQ molecule) opens doors for novel vision restoration strategies that could potentially be applied to humans,” Polosukhina said.

The research was supported by the National Eye Institute and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Initiative for Macular Research.