The answer may have implications in the brain's susceptibility to eating disorders.
Neuroscientist Pawan Sinha and his team at MIT launched the Prakash Project, named for the the Sanskrit word meaning ‘light.‘ At first, the project sought to cure blind children in India. It's a noble effort, given that India has the highest population of blind people, less than half survive to their third birthday and less than one percent are employable.
According to Sinha, who presented at the One Mind for Research Forum, his team screened 20,000 children and treated 700 of them for problems such as cataracts, which can be corrected by surgery. Now these 700 children can see. Sort of.
Their vision doesn't arrive, voilà, as with the Biblical character Bartimaeus. Instead, parts of vision develop, gradually. And in surprising ways. It's real science in real time with a humanitarian grounding. The results are blowing the minds of developmental scientists, including Nobel Laureates, who have asserted that blind children older than 5 - 10 years of age probably will never see again - surgery or not.
Studies show that blindness at birth creates profound deficiencies in the brain, defects which cannot be reversed by restoring sight - unless that correction occurs before certain "critical periods" of development. Researchers had thought the critical window, open only until about 5-8 years of age in children, was rigid. Once shut, the door to sight could not be reopened. In other words, the mind locks itself in.
The results echo studies of the role of hormones in the womb on the development of eating disorders. Research shows that boys with a twin sister were ten times more likely to get anorexia than boys with a twin brother. The reason may have to do with estrogen exposure in the womb. The hormone may bathe the brain of the developing fetus and influence its susceptibility to eating disorders.
What this means is that like vision, the window to eating disorder development opens very early in development. And possibly reopens later in puberty.
In a study of pre-adolescent twin versus adolescent twins, researchers found that the genetic influences on disordered eating symptoms were minimal in pre-pubertal twins and substantial in twins who had begun puberty. Conclusion: puberty might be reawakening an early-seeded eating disorder.
How? That's the stuff of future studies. And knowing how will help to figure out how to close the brain to eating disorders either very early in life or later before adolescence.
It's the ultimate in prevention. Let's hope for more promising discoveries.