Inside the human brain, there’s a tissue the size of a tennis ball that allows us to see. But in Milena Canning’s brain, that tissue is missing, meaning that she’s blind. Except she’s not really blind…
Scientists in London, Ontario have tested the 48-years-old Scottish woman for years to find out how she can see. Her brain allows her to see objects only when they move. She can see clothes in a washer or water in a bathtub as she swirls it with her hand. But she can’t see static objects.
This syndrome is called Riddoch, discovered in 1917 by Scottish neurologist George Riddoch. The patients he had with injured occipital lobes said that they could see moving objects, but not the ones that are stationary.
In 1999 the same thing happened to Canning as she had a lung infection that turned into a severe respiratory collapse. Her organs began to shut down, so she was put in a drug-induced coma for 52 days. She woke up and realized she couldn’t see.
Her brain had some damaged tissue after several strokes she had while in come. Doctors cleared out the damaged brain tissue, and now brain scans show the empty holes filled with fluid.
But in both hemispheres, there was a tiny tissue (small like a teaspoon) that was intact, says neuropsychologist Jody Culham:
“And that particular piece of tissue is an area that responds vigorously in everybody — in her, in you and me — to things that are moving.”
When she told doctors she could see tiny bits, they didn’t believe her. But she went to the Western’s Brain and Mind Institute in 2007 and ever since, she was tested there. Her case is now going to be published in the journal Neuropsychologia, and Culham stated that:
“This may be the richest characterization ever conducted of a single patient’s visual system. It’s important for patients and physicians to realize vision isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing thing. It’s not that someone is blind or sighted and there’s nothing in between.”
Canning underwent some tests as experiments at Western, like catching balls that were thrown at her. She could see water running down a window, but she couldn’t see through the window. The team concluded that she has “a remarkably robust preserved ability to perceive motion.”
One question remains for Canning:
“Am I ever going to get even a little bit back in one eye so that I can at least see my family and friends? I hope it keeps on improving. But this might be it. Nobody knows.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.