On the list of superpowers, night vision isn’t too high up. Telekinesis and flight definitely beat it and we’re on the fence about where to rank invisibility. But, night vision does have one extra perk: it looks like it might actually be possible.
A couple of independent researchers in California have created what they call night vision-enhancing eye drops. While early results have been only subjectively successful, they’re based on sound science and may lead to the creation of usable products.
However, we wouldn’t recommend whipping up your own batch quite yet. Much, much more research is needed before the drops can be declared effective or safe. Even now, physicians have raised serious concerns about some of the materials used in the experiment.
The chemical star of the show is Chlorin e6 (Ce6). Ce6 is a photosensitizer, a class of molecules that, when exposed to light, interacts with oxygen to produce an incredibly reactive, cell-destroying product. Intimidating, but also very useful. Photodynamic therapy – careful combination of photosensitizers and light – is highly effective against some forms of cancer.
Ce6 has also recently been shown to have some promise in treating night blindness. Then, in 2012, researchers from Columbia University found that Ce6 could give mice apparently increased vision in low light.
There’s normally an enormous gap between a chemical being shown to have an effect in mice and that same chemical being used in humans. But in this case, that gap was bridged by a team of independent Californian researchers. Science for the Masses is an open-source lab. Their stated goal is the development of “citizen science,” with studies done without expensive equipment and summarized in plain English.
And sometimes that means dropping potentially dangerous compounds into your eyes.
Science for the Masses’ plan was simple, direct, and a little frightening. They pinned one willing subject’s eyes open, then dropped in several dropper-fulls of a mixture that contained Ce6, as well as additional chemicals intended to speed its absorption into the eye.
They then conducted some simple low-light trials, comparing the subject’s night vision against four other participants who hadn’t received the treatment. They reported that the Ce6 drops allowed their tester to identify 100 percent of presented shapes, while the controls could only identify 33 percent. By their own admission, this wasn’t exactly conclusive.
While initial results do look promising, more rigidly designed trials could do a lot more in proving or disproving the actual effectiveness of Ce6 treatments. Several well-known confounds could account for the apparent boost in night vision. For example, Licina, the tester who actually received the drops, could simply have better low-light vision. Alternately, the researchers running the test could have unconsciously made it easier for Licina, a problem normally avoided by running double-blind studies, in which test-giver are unaware of the identities of their test-takers.
And, of course, there are safety concerns…
You Probably Shouldn’t Try This at Home
As mentioned before, Ce6 is not what anyone could call harmless. In tandem with light, it can become intensely toxic to surrounding cells – you can probably imagine the potential effects of dropping a load of it into your eyes, then failing to sufficiently protect them from light.
Fortunately, Science for the Masses didn’t go in entirely blind (if they had, Licina probably would have gone out the same way). In their own report on the experiment, they included a prominent disclaimer that several of the chemicals used were dangerous and explicitly discouraged following in their footsteps.
They also took steps to protect Licina’s eyes from light after the Ce6 addition. Look through some of the other articles covering the experiment, and you’ll likely see some creepy photos of a black-eyed Licina staring up at the camera. The effect is actually caused by a pair of protective scleral lenses, intended to keep light from reaching his eyes.
Even with those safety measures, Ce6 remains dangerous. As one ophthalmologist explained, the amount of the chemical used by Science for the Masses was “roughly 60x the toxic level observed in rabbits,” and that the effects of Ce6 in animal trials included retinal hemorrhage and blockage of an important vein in the eye.
To sum things up: this brand of night vision just isn’t worth the risk. Science for the Masses’ experiment was daring, interesting, and absolutely not one that readers should imitate.
A Safer Way to Go
Don’t feel too bummed, there are plenty of paths to better night vision that don’t involve Ce6. Diet has long been recognized as an important part of keeping eyes up to scratch in low light. While reports of carrots conferring wonder vision are a wee bit exaggerated, they do contain large amounts of Vitamin A, a nutrient your eyes need to see clearly at night.
Diet can also slow down or even work to prevent various conditions that impact visual acuity. Age-related macular degeneration and cataracts are both very common among older Americans and both conditions can wreak havoc on night vision. A vitamin rich diet can go a long way towards keeping yourself clear of these and other degenerative conditions.
Nutrition supplements such as our Ocu-Plus formula are designed to cover common diet deficiencies. Ingredients like chromium, bilberries, eyebright, and zeaxanthin aren’t always easy to come by for many people. But these supplements, with broad spectrum specialized vitamins, can make sure your eyes stay at the very top of their game.