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A Blind Man 'Learns' to See

Stem-Cell Transplant Recipient Sees Motion But Has Trouble With Faces

Images of Motion vs. Images of Form

"Motion processing develops very early in babies, and it does not seem to be very plastic," Fine says. "Mike showed that you can switch the light out on motion for 40 years and when you switch the light back on nothing has changed. But form processing appears much more complicated. It seems to be more reliant on experiences later in life."

Fine and colleagues suggest that a person's ability to distinguish complex forms develops later in life, and therefore remains virtually undeveloped in people like May who lose their sight at an early age. They further speculate that this late development occurs because people need to process and recognize new objects throughout their lives.

'Catalog of Visual Clues' Builds Daily

May acknowledges that adapting to his new sight has been a challenge, but he is still glad he had the surgery. A highly successful businessman and accomplished athlete who won six international medals for downhill skiing before regaining his sight, May says he thought long and hard before deciding to have the procedure.

"It took me about six months to decide to do it," he tells WebMD. "There were a lot of reasons not to have it, but I enjoy challenges and I figured I could deal with this one."

He says that for him "learning" to see is similar to the experience of learning a second language. Only instead of new words he learns new visual clues to help him process what his eyes see.

"My catalog of visual clues is building daily. My visual acuity isn't changing, but I am now able to recognize things much faster because of this visual catalog. An image that might have taken me 10 seconds to figure out at the beginning of this road now may take two."

For some time after the operation, May closed his eyes while skiing because the visual images gave him the sense that he was about to hit something on the slopes. He says he still has that sensation, but is slowly learning to ignore it.

"The difference between today and two years ago is that I can better guess at what I am seeing," he says. "What is the same is that I am still guessing."

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