Improving Health & Medicine

Vision Research: What the Weizmann Institute is Doing

E-News, February 2018 • TAGS: Senses, Neuroscience, Brain

Vision Research: What the Weizmann Institute is Doing

The good news is that we’re living longer than ever. The not-so-good news is that age-related diseases – including vision problems – are also sticking around. As just one example, the National Institutes of Health says that because of increased longevity, the number of people with age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, grew 18 percent – from 1.75 to 2.07 million – over a single decade.

Fortunately, the Weizmann Institute of Science’s dedicated researchers are investigating age-related diseases from a number of angles, from the basic biochemistry of the retina to imaging the brain in action. Interdisciplinary groups study computer-aided and artificial vision and experiment with vaccines that could prevent degenerative eye diseases. By finding ways to better understand, protect, preserve, and treat the eyes, Weizmann scientists are improving life for people worldwide.

Visionary vaccines. Neuroimmunologist Prof. Michal Schwartz, known worldwide for her research on neurodegenerative diseases, was the first to propose that glaucoma could benefit from a neuroprotection approach – meaning the use of certain vaccines to protect against overreaction by the immune system – and developed a vaccine that, in mice, showed that it’s possible to arrest the progress of vision degeneration. Furthermore, her findings indicate that neuroprotection may also be able to treat the dry form of AMD, which affects 80% of all AMD patients.

Compound to combat eye pressure. Prof. Stephen Karlish and Weizmann colleagues, in collaboration with ophthalmologists, have developed a compound that may help treat glaucoma by combating the intraocular pressure that is its major symptom. Their foxglove-based fluid is applied to the eye, thereby avoiding side effects in the body. In experiments with rabbits, it was more effective in preventing or reducing eye pressure than the most widely used glaucoma drug. Moreover, when given in combination with that glaucoma drug, the compound’s effect lasted 24 hours, which makes life easier for patients.

Learning a new sense. Rats have a sense that humans don’t: “whisking,” moving their finely tuned whiskers back and forth to precisely locate objects. Could humans acquire this sense? Could it fill in for the loss of vision? To find out, Prof. Ehud Ahissar attached plastic whiskers to the fingers of blindfolded volunteers and asked them perform location tasks. Participants adapted quickly to the new sense, rapidly honing their “whisking” skills. The findings have yielded new insight into the process of sensing, and may point to new avenues in developing aids for the blind.

After centuries of study, eyes and the process of vision are still surprisingly mysterious. You can help move the research forward: partner with dedicated Weizmann scientists as they seek to help us not only keep seeing, but to have good quality of life, throughout our lives.