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Blind woman is able to see objects in motion

Milena Canning has been diagnosed with Riddoch syndrome. Credit: Western University, London Canada

A blind Scottish woman who is able to see objects when they move has been diagnosed with a rare condition by scientists in Canada.

Milena Canning was found to have Riddoch syndrome, where a blind person can see an object when it is in motion but not if it is stationary.

Ms Canning, 48, from Scotland, lost her sight 18 years ago after a respiratory infection and a series of strokes followed by an eight-week coma.

Months later, she began to occasionally see moving things, such as her daughter’s ponytail bobbing as she walked or water swirling down a drain, but was unable to see her daughter’s face or a tub already full with water.

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Ms Canning was then referred to Canada's Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute by an ophthalmologist from Glasgow. Using brain mapping techniques, the team found she was missing a piece of tissue at the back of her brain that processes vision.

Neuropsychologist Jody Culham, who led the research team at the Brain and Mind Institute, said: “In Milena’s case, we think the ‘super-highway’ for the visual system reached a dead end.

“But rather than shutting down her whole visual system, she developed some ‘back roads’ that could bypass the superhighway to bring some vision – especially motion – to other parts of the brain.”

Milena Canning and Neuropsychologist Jody Culham. Credit: Western University, London Canada

The researchers found Ms Canning was able to recognise the motion, direction, size and speed of balls rolling toward her. She was even able to catch some of the balls at the right time and navigate around chairs.

But when it came to the objects themselves, she was unable to consistently identify their colours or detect whether someone’s hand in front of her showed thumb-up or thumb-down.

Ms Canning said: “I can’t see like normal people see or like I used to see. The things I’m seeing are really strange.

“There is something happening and my brain is trying to rewire itself or trying different pathways.”

Milena Canning's brain compared with a regular person's brain of the same age. Credit: Western University, London Canada

The scientists say Ms Canning’s brain, in essence, “is taking unexpected, unconventional detours around damaged pathways”.

Ms Culham said: “This work may be the richest characterisation ever conducted of a single patient’s visual system.

“She has shown this very profound recovery of vision, based on her perception of motion.”

The research is published in the journal Neuropsychologia.