Introduction and Summary
Prior to the nineteenth century, the only form of radiation known to man was the visible light by which we perceive our world. Today, we understand that the light we can see makes up less than one percent of one percent of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Orbiting satellites detect the Gamma rays and X-rays by which we learn about the universe. We transmit data as fluctuations in the amplitude and frequency of microwaves and radio waves, and yet none of these non-visible waves, as useful as they may be, elicit the psychological impact of a “pure” white or a “lusty” red. Humans are influenced by the very visceral responses we have to color, a fact well known by marketing agents and psychologists alike. Mankind’s understanding of the universe has grown exponentially; however we still speak of climbing up a mountain rather than away from the center of the earth. Men have flown far enough to appreciate the true shape of our home, our earth, but the anachronisms of up and down, sunset and sunrise, simply make more intuitive sense. Brahe’s astronomical charts and even images of Armstrong before a blue green sphere provide only a superficial understanding. A great divide remains between what we perceive to be real, and what we rationally conclude to be true. On an instinctual level, seeing remains believing.
Progress brings with it more complex problems than we’ve ever faced before. They are made more daunting by the fact that we can’t solve them heuristically. We lack an intuitive, instinctual sense of these new difficulties and thus argue if global warming is really even occurring. Were it possible to augment our ability to perceive, this might not be so. It’s not merely more data that we need. We need better ways, better faculties through which to interpret data. Imagine, for example, if we had eyes sensitive to a much broader range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Would it provide a more visceral way of comprehending that which we now only understand rationally? It’s a difficult question to answer, but one which Science for the Masses hopes to at least begin to explore. We’ve begun with perhaps the most important of human senses, vision, and believe we’ve found a means by which a human will be able to perceive more. This study intends to augment human vision to be sensitive to light in the near infrared spectrum, and measure how far into this spectrum sensitivity can be extended. Although this isn’t a fix to the environment, or a cure to modern plague, it will literally provide a new way of seeing the world with more innate significance than mere statistics and data tables.
Human vision works via a process called phototransduction. In this process, light enters the eye through the pupil, is focused by the lens, and strikes the retina. On the retina are billions of photoreceptive cells called rods and cones, and in these rods and cones are phototransductive compounds called photopigments. These pigments are the target of our project.
Color is not a physical property; it is merely the brain’s interpretation of different wavelengths of light. Human vision spans a visual spectrum of approximately 390-720nm. At the short end (390) is what we perceive as blue; at the long end (720) is red. This is nowhere near all light; in fact, it comprises less than an estimated 1% of 1% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The narrow range of light we can see is primarily a result of what wavelengths our photopigments are sensitive to; as an engineer would say, the pigments are the bottleneck.
Our pigments (photopsin in the cones, rhodopsin in the rods) are comprised of a protein complex called opsin, which is native to the eye, and retinal, a derivative of retinol, or vitamin A (A1). Not all animals with a visual pathway like ours use vitamin A in their pigments, however. Of interest to us, freshwater fish (along with some crustaceans & amphibians) use the pigment porphyropsin, which is composed of 3,4-dehydroretinol, also called vitamin A2, in conjunction with opsin. This photopigment has been shown to be sensitive to light of wavelengths up to 1400nm in some species, which is well into the near infrared range.
Our research has indicated that human beings are fully capable of using vitamin A2 to form our pigments; however, vitamin A1 has a 3-4x greater bioactivity as compared to A2. We believe this to be as a result of both cellular transport mechanisms having a greater affinity for A1, and competitive inhibition (for the layperson, “first come, first serve”).
The aim of the NIR visual perception pilot study is to exploit this opening in the human visual pathway in a brute force metabolic hack. The members of Science for the Masses and a handful of our collaborators will completely eliminate all retinoids and caretinoids (vitamin A and its provitamins) from our diets by switching to a special vitamin A deficient (VAD) blend of Soylent provided to us by special request. We will then supplement with two compounds: 3,4-dehydroretinol (A2) and retinoic acid (RA). Retinoic acid is a derivative of vitamin A which plays a critical role in gene transcription and a host of other systemic processes, and without which we would quickly fall ill and be forced to discontinue the pilot study. Unfortunately, RA has not been shown to synthesize from vitamin A2 in mammals; luckily, however, it appears that there is severely limited intraconvertibility between RA and vitamin A, if any, and so we don’t expect this additional supplementation to sabotage our attempts to hack the visual pathway.
Data collection will be facilitated via electroretinography (ERG). The subjects’ eyes will be dark-adjusted. Then, under a dim red light, corneal electrodes and ERG contact lens electrodes will be applied. The subjects will look through a viewport in a completely dark enclosure containing an array of NIR LEDs. The LEDs will be manually switched on and off by the test subjects at predetermined intervals. These intervals will be compared to the results of the ERG records, and data analysis will indicated whether the retinas of the subjects experienced any electrophysiological reaction to the NIR light, indicating a shift in the visual spectrum.
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