The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Can You Teach A Brain To See?

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Mike May had a successful corneal transplant and forty-two years later, his eye was healthy again. But his vision was still impaired.

In this week's radio story, we profile Mike May, who lives in Davis, California. Mike's the founder of a GPS-services company called Sendero Group and the author of a memoir, Crashing Through

Mike grew up in a rural part of New Mexico, on land that had once been owned by miners. When Mike was three years old, he opened up a jar containing an explosive chemical that the miners had left behind. The accident left him nearly blind.

Forty-two years later, doctors fixed one of his eyes (the other was too damaged) in a series of two procedures.

First they performed limbal stem cell transplant – an early, fairly-well established stem-cell procedure. Donor limbal cells, removed from a cadaver, were placed onto Mike's eye, where they repaired the scarred tissue. This made Mike a candidate for a successful corneal transplant. Forty-two years after his injury, Mike's eye was healthy again. But his vision was still impaired.

During those decades of blindness, it seemed that Mike's brain had essentially lost the ability to see detail, to make out faces. Our story looks at the research Mike's case has inspired, in particular a recent paper, published in the journal Neuron by Stanford Psychology Professor Brian Wandell. We also hear from Ione Fine, who was one of the first scientists to study Mike.

Fine shared with us this image of two brain scans.


Mike's brain is on the left; a seeing person's brain is on the right. You can see how much less of Mike's brain becomes active when presented with images of objects (in blue) or faces (in red).

This Powerpoint lecture, also provided by Ione Fine, takes a closer look at Mike’s brain and its ability to process visual information. Download the Power Point Presentation here.

Listen to Teaching A Brain To See radio report online.

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Category: Health, Radio

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.