Turning out the lights may help restore vision in people with a visual impairment known as amblyopia, according to a new study.
Researchers Kevin Duffy and Donald Mitchell of Dalhousie University in Canada believe that exposure to darkness causes some parts of the visual system to revert to an early stage in development, when there is greater flexibility.
"There may be ways to increase brain plasticity and recover from disorders such as amblyopia without drug intervention. Immersion in total darkness seems to reset the visual brain to enable remarkable recovery," Duffy said.
Amblyopia affects about four percent of the general population and is thought to develop when the two eyes do not see equally well in early life, as the connections from the eyes to visual areas in the brain are still being refined. Left untreated, that imbalance of vision can lead to permanent vision loss.
In the new study, the researchers examined kittens with amblyopia induced by experimentally depriving them of visual input to one eye. After those animals were plunged into darkness, their vision made a profound and rapid recovery.
Further examination suggested that the restoration of vision depends on the loss of neurofilaments that hold the visual system in place. With those stabilizing elements gone, the visual system becomes free to correct itself.
Darkness therapy holds promise for the treatment of children with amblyopia, the researchers said, but don't try this at home.
They think that the darkness must be absolute to work, with no stray light at any time. It is also important to address the original cause of the amblyopia first, and to ensure that a period of darkness will not harm an individual's good eye.
The researchers are still working out just how much darkness is required, and for how long. Regardless, they said it is unlikely that a drug could ever adequately mimic the effects of darkness that they've seen.
The study was reported in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. (ANI)