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Project Eye Opener: past, present and future

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Project eye opener is a unique program with a dual purpose: First and foremost to identify children that suffer from congenital blindness due to cataract, and surgically treat them. Second, and no less critical, to rigorously follow the development of various aspects of functional vision in time. Cataract removal, resulting in a clear image projection on the retina, is obviously a necessary  condition for acquiring functional vision but it is not sufficient. The newly sighted must learn to interpret the image on the retina, through development of the visual cortical pathways.  We are convinced that a rigorous scientific inquiry is essential for a deeper understanding of the processes involved in vision acquisition, mapping the possible obstacles that may limit performance.

The ultimate goal of this study is to utilize this acquired information to develop optimal perceptual learning paradigms suited for the newly sighted. This would allow acquisition of a larger repertoire of visual skills, leading to a better quality of life for the treated children. 

Project eye opener evolved from a voluntary mission carried out by Dr. Itay Ben-Zion. Itay is a pediatric ophthalmologist at Padeh Poria hospital and Bar Ilan university faculty of medicine. Upon completing his fellowship at Indiana University, in 2006, he decided to spend a year in Ethiopia (in 2007-8) to advance the treatment of eye-related diseases in the country. During this year, Itay established a pediatric eye service at Hawassa University, and restored sight and to hundreds of children. He has continued his voluntary work ever since, providing clinical treatment to many hundreds of children in southern Ethiopia. In 2011, he was approached by Dr. Ehud Zohary, a visual neuroscientist who has been studying the brain processes underlying visual perception in humans and non-human primates for two decades. Ehud, whose studies of cortical plasticity in the visual cortex of the congenitally blind had revolutionized our view of brain function changes following prolonged blindness, was keen on combining scientific inquiry of the effects of early blindness with a chance to radically change the lives of children with treatable blindness. Thus, project eye opener came to life. The first children were surgically treated in June 2013.

To date, 108 children have been treated in Hawassa referral hospital, and most are tested regularly to assess their visual development. Beyond the main effort of surgical treatment and visual function analysis is our wish to offer the best rehabilitation process to the treated children, To obtain this, we recruited Dr. Uri Polat. chairman of the school of vision and optometry at Bar Ilan University, with deep knowledge on a wide variety of topics from fundamental aspects of visual perception to Amblyopia, development of vision, and Presbyopia. Uri has pioneered novel Perceptual Learning techniques for recovering vision in patients with amblyopia, presbyopia and developmental object and face agnosia. An active rehabilitation program for these patients, employing Dr. Polat’s techniques, has begun in Sheshemene blind school in Ethiopia. The project is scheduled to expand to include other regions in Ethiopia including Gondar (Northren Ethiopia)  and Jimma (Western Ethiopia).

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