Bablu Singh Rawat remembers January 11, 2007 like yesterday. It was the afternoon the 16-year-old began to see.
Now 19, the first year student of humanities at Delhi’s PGDAV College is learning to enjoy simple pleasures such as shopping. But a cataract surgery and the gift of sight have changed his life in another manner. “I spent my first 15 years leaning on parents and friends. Now my biggest thrill comes from helping them with small tasks,” he says.
Pawan Sinha, 43, a visual neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says patients such as Rawat are helping him challenge a long-held scientific notion: children who are born blind cannot be cured beyond a ‘critical period’. That if they are older than five years, even if they have their corneas corrected, the chances of them learning how to see are slim.
At Old Delhi’s Shroff Eye Hospital, the associate professor at MIT lays out the figures that helped him decide on launching the Prakash Children’s Foundation. “There are 13 million blind children worldwide. Of these, the most are in India. Of the 1.2 million blind kids in India, 25 per cent can be treated.”
Sinha’s foundation works at three levels. At outreach camps across Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, doctors assess whether the child has residual vision. “If a child can sense where the direction light is coming from, he or she is a candidate for treatment. At the second screening, conducted at the Shroff Eye Hospital, we evaluate the opacity of the cornea,” he explains.
Through Project Prakash, they get to study people such as Rawat who’ve got to see the world for the first time.
Born in the Capital, Sinha went to Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram and did his BTech in computer science from IIT, Delhi before a PhD from MIT.
“I went to Berkeley to become a supercomputing architect. What I saw of traditional supercomputing appeared more engineering than science. So, I gravitated towards neuroscience.”
Today Sinha is driven by two goals. “The first, humanitarian goal is extending care to children deprived of treatment. But the scientific mission is to test the limits of visual plasticity.”
Since 2003, the Prakash Foundation has been extending free screenings to more than 23,000 children at eye-care camps. Of these, surgery to correct congenital blindness was carried out on 80 children free of cost. Also, 500 kids were treated for significant impairment.
The first step in recovery after a surgery is sensitivity to motion. In a few weeks the child can make out faces of loved ones. In a few months, he acquires the ability for visual image parsing.
Parsing, or the ability to break up the visual array into distinct objects, is critical for making sense of the world.
Looking ahead, Sinha wants to build a centre that will combine medical care, education, rehabilitation and research. “We want philanthropists to help us set up the outreach and rehabilitation processes,” he says.
Owing to the big gap between those who need corneas and the donors, the need for such a centre cannot be overemphasised. India has 12 lakh corneally blind people. Every year, the figure goes up by 25,000. But the number of corneas donated every year is just 40,000.
In his own way, the professor is bringing prakash (light) into the lives of those who never knew how the world looked like. Ask Bablu Singh Rawat.