No, Biohackers Did Not Just Discover Eyedrops That Give You Night Vision — And using them might damage your eyesight
You may have seen the breathless headlines, “See in the dark (for a little bit) with night vision eyedrops”, “California biohackers create night vision eye drops”, “A Team of Biohackers Has Figured Out How to Inject Your Eyeballs With Night Vision”, etc.
Amazing right? Maybe not.
First, importantly, this is a report of a human test of a previously suggested concept and scientific result from a 2006 experiment on mice. That result is due to Dr. Ilyas Washington and his team as documented in a 2007 paper “Chlorophyll derivatives as visual pigments for super vision in the red”
So first, let’s credit the actual inventor Dr. Ilyas Washington. This is not a new discovery and to the extent that it is, it is due to Dr. Washington and his group at Columbia University. Dr. Washington runs the Lab Washington where he and his team work to design and develop approaches modify the course of serious diseases.
He was born in NYC and is an Assistant Professor at Columbia Medical Center in the Department of Ophthalmology. He received a BA in Chemistry from Bard College and received a PhD in Computational Chemistry under Ken Houk from University of California Los Angeles. He is also a co-founder of Alkeus pharmaceuticals a specialty ophthalmology pharmaceutical company using ideas developed from technology originating in his lab.
Dr. Washington is the discoverer of the potential to use Ce6 to gain super night vision but he isn’t a “biohacker” and is he isn’t from California either. In the 2007 paper on the subject he concludes, “This mechanism is shown to enhance vision in a mouse model and perhaps could also do so in humans.”
What Exactly Did the Biohackers Do?
According to the site scienceforthemasses.org, “200mg of Ce6 was mixed with 400 units (4ml) of insulin (70/30 Lantus). To this was added 5.38ml of sterile saline solution (0.9% sodium chloride). The mixture was sonicated briefly (30 seconds) to allow for proper dispersal of the powder into saturated solution and then 625μl of DMSO (Amresco) was added. The solution was sealed with parafilm and sonicated for 150 seconds. The resulting liquid was thin and black in color. Solution was kept in glass aliqouts wrapped in foil at 20°C.”
This is somewhat different application than that described in Washington et al, and the specific formulation is derived from a subsequent 2012 patent. Importantly Washington et al report observed levels of Ce6 in the eye due to dietary consumption of plants roughly 1/10 this amount (2 mg/ml).
Two hours after administering the Ce6 mixture in eye drops, “the subject and 4 controls were taken to a darkened area and subjected to testing. Three forms of subjective testing were performed. These consisted of symbol recognition by distance, symbol recognition on varying background colors at a static distance, and the ability to identify moving subjects in a varied background at varied distances.”
However, apparently, results are really only reported and documented in any detail for the symbol recognition tasks and confusingly in aggregate.
“Symbol recognition consisted of placing a collection of objects with markings on them (numbers, letters, shapes). Subjects were then asked to identify the markings, each viewing the objects from the same location at a distance of 10 meters. The markings were not made prior to the moment of testing. For subject recognition, individuals went moved in a small grove of trees. They were allowed to chose their own location independently. Distances ranged from 25 to 50 meters from observation point”….The Ce6 subject consistently recognized symbols that did not seem to be visible to the controls. The Ce6 subject identified the distant figures 100% of the time, with the controls showing a 33% identification rate.”
Bad Experimental Design
Unfortunately due to the weak design of this experiment we really can not conclude anything conclusively about the true effect of Ce6 on night vision. The results reported are purely anecdotal, although Washington has already shown the idea should work, in the end we still do not know.
SftM reports, “After 2 hours of adjustment, the subject and 4 controls were taken to a darkened area and subjected to testing.” In other words, night vision performance of the subject exposed to the Ce6 was compared to the night vision performance of other individuals. The problem is that these individuals might have different levels of night vision performance for various reasons having nothing to do with the Ce6. For example, the subject was protected from light sources after application of the Ce6 mixture with dark glasses while control subjects were not.
“Black sunglasses were then worn during all but testing, to ensure increased low light conditions and reduce the potential for bright light exposure.”
To perform the experiment correctly, both subjects and control should wear the dark glasses and be isolated from light using the same exact protocol. This eliminates the light isolation protocol as a source of observed differences in night vision performance. We also can not know if the subject had superior night vision performance to the control group before application of the Ce6 since his initial vision performance was never recorded.
This unfortunately undermines the primary result of the experiment. What we really want to know is how the application of a drug enhances the performance of an individual person. The effects of substances can vary and some subjects may respond differently or have adverse side effects. Individual improvements in performance can easily be determined by baselining prior to application of the Ce6. The failure to do baselining is a notable and a pretty unfortunate failure in the StfM experimental design.
Accepting the anecdotal nature of this result, it seems like it worked. But it isn’t really correct to state that this technique provides “low light amplification in the human eye” as the StfM paper mentions in it’s rather political and unscientific concluding section. This isn’t going to give you night vision like you see in the movies.
What chlorin e6 does is instead to mediate the transformation of light into an electrical signal. The presence of the Ce6 changes the primary event in vision to activation of Ce6, an event which simply does not occur if the Ce6 is not present. The amount of light in the environment remains unchanged and is not “amplified” or increased by this method. These small mistakes all add up when you evaluate the entire experiment as a whole.
Eyedrop Formula is Based on Patent by Discredited Alternative Medicine Practitioner
“In 2012 a patent was filed based in some part on the work of Washington et al. The patent claims that a mixture can be made which, when applied to the eye, will absorb to the retina and act to increase vision in low light. The mixture put forth in the patent is a simple combination of Ce6 and insulin in saline. It is mentioned in the same, that dimethlysulfoxide (DMSO) can be used in place of the insulin. ”
The SftM research references US Patent 20120157377 issued to Totada R. Shantha (aka Totada R. Shanthaveerappa and Dr. Totada R. Shantha) who also holds patents on self heating eyeglasses, efficient lightbulbs, and a wok. He also lost his license to practice medicine in Georgia during a case where Mr. Shantha was shown to have given patients insecticide and weed killer.
Totada R. Shantha and his medical assistant Dan U. Bartoli were indicted on 87 counts of health care fraud and distributing unapproved and misbranded drugs. Shantha was also charged with money laundering. The charges resulted from a clinic Shantha operated in Stockbridge, Georgia under the names “Integrated Medical Specialists” and “Integrated Chemotherapy Specialists.”
One of Shantha’s Web sites offered various pseudoscience methods “for the treatment of cancers and other curable and incurable diseases” and stated “We treat all kinds of chronic, incurable diseases with success!” Shantha’s Georgia medical license was suspended a few days after he was indicted. In 2007, Shantha pled guilty to one count of health care fraud, agreed to pay a total of $650,000 in asset forfeiture plus restitution, and was ordered to serve five years’ probation followed by three years of supervised release.
Unfortunately the SftM report doesn’t mention any of this information and simply reports the procedure documented in the patent. However the U.S. Patent Office does not evaluate medical devices, drugs or anything else in patent applications for safety. Therapeutic utility is sufficient under patent law and existence of an issued patent should not be confused with the requirements of the FDA with regard to safety or efficacy of drugs marketed in the United States.
However there are very good reasons to be concerned here, as Mr. Shantha has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of concern for patient safety, well being and health.
Employed Mixture Amplifies Toxicity
The SftM report states at the outset a disclaimer, “The authors of this paper are writing this review for research and informative purposes only. Increased light amplification may have adverse effects on the cellular structure of the eye if improperly used and the some of the materials used in this mixture should not be used on humans or animals.”
That’s good advice because Chlorin e6 releases Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that causes cell death and repeated use could damage your eyesight. In fact, Ce6 is used to kill tumor cells in a technique known as photodynamic therapy where a patient is injected with the Ce6 and tumor cells are exposed to a laser light with the appropriate wavelength. This is documented in the SftM report, “Chlorin e6 (Ce6) has been used for many years as a therapy agent in cancer treatment”
But does it damage healthy cells in a normal human eye? In a 2001 analysis , “Retreatment effect of NPe6 photodynamic therapy on the normal primate macula”, macaca fuscata monkeys were given three PDT treatments and then killed. Their eyes were examined for damage and the report concludes that “Repeated PDT of healthy nonhuman primate fundi using a hydrophilic photosensitizer (NPe6) shows preservation of the neurosensory retina components and architecture” with “damage confined to the retinal pigment epithelium and choriocapillaris.”
While Ce6 seemingly doesn’t damage the primary neural structure of the eye, it does have an effect. In monkeys, damage to both the retinal pigment epithelium and choriocapillaris was observed after three treatments using Ce6. While the retinal epithelium was thought to have no role in visual sensory performance, but recent research demonstrates that the epithelium provides multiple functions that are needed for normal photoreceptor function and therefore normal vision. The choriocapillaris consists of the capillaries that provide the retina with oxygen and damage to these structures is associated with various degenerative eye diseases including age related macular degeneration.
The Shantha patent presents a method employing 20 mg of Chlorin e6 in 40 units of Insulin or alternatively the use of dimethlysulfoxide (DMSO). However, in the reported SftM experiment the biohackers used both Insulin and DMSO together, “We propose a combination of the two could lead to the most noted effects. For testing purposes, the mixture from the patent (Ce6, Saline, Insulin) was used with the addition of DMSO for increased permeability.”
The combination probably does increase the effectiveness of the Ce6 but therefore also enhances the toxicity to normal cells. According to a paper by Chine et all, “Improved formulation of photosensitizer chlorin e6 polyvinylpyrrolidone for fluorescence diagnostic imaging and photodynamic therapy of human cancer”, the addition of DMSO to Ce6 reduces discrimination of tumor cells from application of Ce6 alone. That means that using the Ce6 DMSO combination increases the risk of this technique damaging healthy retinal cells.
This only makes sense since it is the photodynamic effect of the Ce6 that produces the damaging ROS as well the electrical signal that results in the subject seeing something. The better it works, the more damage to the healthy cells in the eye at least potentially.
Can You Really Take Something to Give You Super Night Vision?
The Ce6 mixture employed probably does give some level of enhanced night vision as suggested by Washington in 2007 and reported by Science for the Masses last week.
But it isn’t really viable for this use due to the potential for toxicity and long term damage to normal vision over time.
Other substances have been considered for improving night vision, notably dietary supplements such as bilberry extract and beta carotene. And some Chlorin e6 was demonstrated to be present in the eye after dietary consumption by Washington et al. The effectiveness of these dietary approaches is largely demonstrated, but seemingly fairly limited in scope.
One other substance that has been shown to improve night vision is cannabis. Yes smoking weed apparently improves night vision.
Russo et al heard reports of improved night vision among Jamaican fishermen after ingestion of a tincture of herbal cannabis, so they decided to test this theory with Moroccan fishermen and mountain dwellers who reported an identical improvement after smoking “kif”. They employed a double blind experimental design with placebo and they measured night vision performance using a portable Ganzfeld device, the LKC Technologies Scotopic Sensitivity Tester-1 (SST-1). They conclude the effect is confirmed, “dose-dependent and cannabinoid-mediated at the retinal level.”
Currently, there is better scientific evidence that smoking weed improves your night vision than that Ce6 eyedrops do.
Beyond marijuana, various companies are trying to develop drugs for improving night vision especially due to age related degeneration. Phentolamine mesylate eye drops that improve night vision currently in human trials. Even more extreme, one might consider using CRISPR to make genetic alterations to give human eyes the qualities that maker gecko eyes highly effective night vision cameras.
Conclusion: Do Not Put Ce6 in Your Eyes
Summary, you probably shouldn’t be putting Chlorin e6 in your eyes to get “super” night vision.
If you want to see in the dark, there are better ways than this. The risk is modestly high and unknown especially with repeat use.
While the recent results from California do suggest that the Ce6 eyedrop technique works, they fail to conclusively demonstrate the effectiveness of Ce6. Given the differences in application from other uses of Ce6, the risks remain entirely unknown. It seems from studies in primates, the risks, while not immediately damaging to vision, are not insignificant. It is possible that users could suffer significant degradation of vision over time from repeated use of this substance.
Even if Ce6 works it has to compared with other available alternatives. How much more effective is Ce6 than cannabis for example? What about phentolamine mesylate? Other alternatives?
Here, these experimenters have already defined a solution but failed to identify the problem they are trying to solve. Is this a drug for age related night vision loss? Is the intended use a covert agent infiltrating a secure military base? Is this for hunting?
From conversations online it seems that even raising this issue makes one a “hater” but defining the problem you are trying to solve is a key element of design thinking and it is the first thing you should do when designing an intervention like this. Transhumanism is a strategy for design. Eye drops that give you night vision but make you go blind over time are an example of bad design.
Consider that there might be a way to get a similar or superior result without risking rapid degradation of your normal vision. Even if this process does work and is entirely risk free, it doesn’t come close to the sort of enhancement that is possible with modern GEN IV electronic night vision and thermal imaging equipment. And these devices generally have no or low risk to your normal visual function.
1. A Review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops Using Chlorin e6 Licina, G; Tibbetts, J, retrived from http://scienceforthemasses.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/AReviewonNightEnhancementEyedropsUsingChlorine6.pdf
4. Retina. 2001;21(5):493-8., Retreatment effect of NPe6 photodynamic therapy on the normal primate macula. Nakashizuka T1, Mori K, Hayashi N, Anzail K, Kanail K, Yoneya S, Moshfeghi DM, Peyman GA.
5. The Retinal Pigment Epithelium in Visual Function, Olaf Strauss,
6. Eur J Pharm Biopharm. 2008 Aug;69(3):1083-93. doi: 10.1016/j.ejpb.2008.02.013. Epub 2008 Mar 10,Improved formulation of photosensitizer chlorin e6 polyvinylpyrrolidone for fluorescence diagnostic imaging and photodynamic therapy of human cancer., Chin WW1, Heng PW, Thong PS, Bhuvaneswari R, Hirt W, Kuenzel S, Soo KC, Olivo M.
7. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Jul;93(1):99-104., Cannabis improves night vision: a case study of dark adaptometry and scotopic sensitivity in kif smokers of the Rif mountains of northern Morocco., Russo EB1, Merzouki A, Mesa JM, Frey KA, Bach PJ.