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- Scientists have successfully used nanoparticles to allow mice to see near infrared light.
- The researchers say they’ve made progress on similar nanoparticles to confer this ability onto humans, letting people see in the dark in the future.
- The nanomaterial in the eyes of the mice did not cause any notable side effects.
Want superhero powers that let you see in the dark just like your cat? In the near future you may be able to—as long as you’re not too squeamish to get injections right into your eyeballs.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School have discovered a way to give mice the ability to see infrared light, a part of the visible spectrum that we humans simply cannot see, although it’s there.
What we can see is called the visible spectrum. It’s the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be seen as light, but can also take other forms, like radio waves or ultraviolet light. Humans can see the wavelengths from 380 to 700 nanometers, according to NASA, while microwave energy (including the kind you use to heat up pizza) is between 1 millimeter and 1 micrometer.
Since infrared light has longer wavelengths than the visible spectrum, it’s invisible to the human eye. That means it also complicated matters for the researchers while studying mice because they couldn’t see it, either.
The scientists developed what they call “ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles,” to anchor them onto retinal photoreceptors in the eyes of mice. There are two main types of photoreceptor cells—rods and cones—which convert light into stimuli the body can respond to and understand.
Those nanoparticles contain two rare-earth elements, erbium and ytterbium, which help convert the infrared light into a higher energy green light that mammal eyes can detect.
After creating the nanoparticles, the researchers injected them into the mice’s eyes to observe the effects, said Dr. Gang Han, the project’s principal investigator, during a live broadcast from a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego on Tuesday afternoon.
“It sounds scary but has been routinely done in hospitals,” he added.
Since scientists can’t exactly see through mice eyes, they set up a maze system, among other behavioral tests, to watch how the mice would react, according to the research paper.
In one scenario, researchers set up a Y-shaped tank of water and placed the mice inside. One path had a platform with a triangle on it to help the mice escape the water and the other branch did not.
Researchers trained the mice to swim toward the triangle route, complete with visible light to find the way out of the tank. Another similar light was placed on the side without an escape platform. This side had an O shape. The scientists then changed this side to emit infrared light, rather than visible light.
The mice that were injected with the nanoparticle could see the maze easily and swam to the triangle branch, escaping. The others couldn’t tell the difference between each side.
After just one injection into the mice’s eyes, the effects last at least 10 weeks, Dr. Han said. That surprised him.
For humans, Dr. Han said the team has tried to create a contact lens version since, you know, being stabbed with a needle in the eyeball isn’t super fun.