Scientists manage to recover human eye nerve cells from the dead

In what experts herald as a groundbreaking study that could transform vision research, scientists from the University of Utah and Scripps Research have successfully revived light-sensitive neural cells in the eyes of a donor who had died just hours before.

Nerve cells could communicate with each other again in the retina after the interventionessentially reviving them, says the new study published in the journal Nature

“We were able to wake up photoreceptor cells in the human macula, which is the part of the retina responsible for our central vision and our ability to see fine detail and color,” explains Fatima Abbas of the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, lead author of the new study.

«In eyes obtained up to five hours after the death of an organ donor, these cells responded to bright light, colored lights, and even very faint flashes of light.»

Some human organs remain functional and viable for transplantation several hours after the death of the patient.. But that’s not something we can say about nervous system tissue, which is one of the first to shut down completely due to lack of oxygen.

Abbas and his colleagues embarked on this study to better understand why nerve cells are destroyed by lack of oxygen, and chose the retina as a model of the central nervous system.

Scripps Research Associate Professor Anne Hanneken managed to obtain organ donor eyes in less than 20 minutes from the moment of death to keep oxygen-starved damage to nerve cells to a minimum. The eyes were placed in a special transport unit that provided artificial blood, oxygen and nutrients through a network of heaters and pumps.

Using a special device designed for this study, the researchers stimulated the retina of the donors’ eyes and measured the electrical activity of the cells inside it. When we see things due to light hitting the retina, specific electrical signals called «b waves» are generated. But this signal is totally absent shortly after a person dies, even if a flashlight is shined directly into their eyes.

However, with this approach, the researchers were able to stimulate the retina and measure «b-waves» for the first time in post-mortem human eyes.

This method is a proof of concept for reviving neurons of the central nervous system in general, so it could be adapted to restore electrical communication in neural tissue of the spinal cord or even the brain.

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