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Blind as a bat…?

April 1, 2013

For many years the field of medicine, surgery, technology and rehabilitation has wrestled with how to help people overcome the challenges they face due to sight loss. In the last twenty years the might of the technology and engineering sector has been brought to bare, spawning fascinating research into Sonics and mobility. The results of this research has enabled blind people to “see” whilst wearing special glasses fitted with proximity detectors. With this technology they are able to glean some idea as to their surrounding areas, encompassing obstacles and obstructions. Whilst these devices have enjoyed relative success, their limitations are evident due to their processing limitations. In this instance, blind people have the science of motor vehicles to thank, as the technology in proximity, parking and reversing sensors has been utilised in mobility devices such as glasses and long canes.

Of course, the guide dog is the ultimate in mobility freedom, obstacle avoidance and flexibility. A properly trained and cared for guide dog can navigate his or her owner through crowded streets littered with street furniture and pedestrians with barely a brush. So it was to the animal kingdom that researchers have looked for fresh inspiration. To be more specific, the realm of the Chiropteran or bat.

With recent break through in genetic splicing, scientists have made huge leaps forward in integrating meaningful and functional Chiropteran material into human subjects. Specifically staff at MARS; Mammalian Advancement Research Station in Germany. MARS scientists have published their research papers pertaining to their “Exciting, fascinating, ground-breaking and liberating successes.”

Professor Lance Copoff from the institute explained:

“It is the culturally accepted norm that bats use sound in order to perform echo location. They emit high frequency sound waves and interpret the echo. Inside their bat-brains they form a detailed map of the surrounding area which allows them to both navigate and catch prey.”

His colleague, Doctor Helmet Scheiner explains how this knowledge helped his research team:

“So, we know about bats and we know about eyesight. So how can we converge? How can we pull together our knowledge and the experience of the staff of MARS? Well, we realised that in order to make a viable unit we need to turn the theories into workable, practical solution-driven science. In short, we had to find a way to use our genetic engineering expertise and somehow integrate bat DNA into a human subject.”

After years of experimenting, theorising, hypothesising and discussion, Professor Copoff’s team came up with a solution.

I spoke to Professor Hans Job, the institute’s director of ethics and service delivery:

“Yes, it was an ethical dilemma, but I think we managed to negotiate our way through it. We found a viable volunteer, and after years of computer modelling and mouse and rat-based nonsense we were able to start work on a human subject. Basically, without blinding you with science, we spliced tissue from bat vocal chords and integrated ear drum possites into our subject. After that we re-sculpted the visual and auditory cortex in order to enhance processing. At that point we were ready to scan…”

I went to the scanning unit in the bowels of MARS to speak to Dr. Iva Stonka:

“So, sure, yeah. It was awesome! The results were so amazing! We strapped our subject into the MRI scanner and, like wow! We got her to use her new vocal array and emit a HFS, High Frequency Sound to you, and yes! Her brain lit up like a Christmas pig! her processing was immense.”

So, success. It seems that bat DNA has been transferred to a human subject. But how did this break-through translate in the field? I was granted exclusive access to the subject, a thirty-year old woman whose identity will remain secret. For the benefit of our conversation, and this article, we’ll refer to her as, “Hot blind woman with bits of bats inside her.”

The hot blind woman with bits of bat inside her told me all about it. Although, I do confess that I found the interview disconcerting as she was hanging upside-down by her ankles from a specially constructed perch. Hot blind woman with bits of bat inside her told me:

“I couldn’t see anything. Not even light perception. I had a guide dog, a Golden Retriever who was run over – well, we both were, I broke my legs and punctured my spleen, the dog just stood there and wagged his tail, he was fine. Anyway, I’ve had guide dogs and canes, but I often wondered what it would be like to be tortured, strapped down, operated on and have bat DNA and tissue pumped into me. I have around eight procedures in total. After every one I felt abused, used, violated. But they’re experts, they have white coats and German accents so who am I to argue? Anyway, finally we have results. I am able to produce a high frequency sound and accurately and efficiently interpret it. I know where I am, what’s around me, what obstacles are coming up. In short, apart from being stone blind, I operate like a fully sighted person. You see, normal people can’t hear the sounds, all they see is me opening and closing my mouth now and then.”

I asked her if there were any side affects:

“Well, I have to sleep upside down in order to balance the fluids in my ear canal, and I have an iron rich, raw food diet – which makes eating out a challenge!”

I asked Hot blind woman with bits of bat inside her about her personal life:

“I’m still a virgin, no surprise there. I find it hard to maintain relationships; that maybe due to the diet, the upside-down thing or the other stuff. You see, I also take drugs to balance anti-bodies and prevent my body rejecting genetic material. The medication has some side-affects. I am very light sensitive, have unpredictable bowel movements and am virtually nocturnal.”

I asked her if it was worth it, if she wouldn’t prefer a Labrador:

“Well, I have to sit on the fence. I can see the world in my own way, and I am afraid that if I had a dog I would be average again. Just another blind girl with a guide dog. There’s nothing wrong with people like that, but I am unique, a trail blazer.”

So I left MARS and its staff. I left Hot blind woman with bits of bat inside her To her hanging and her issues. I can’t help but think pushing the boundaries is healthy, but pushing the envelope until it bursts is ridiculous. Just because, as a species, we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Hot blind woman with bits of bat inside her is no caped crusader, no super hero, she’s a moderately attractive woman with quite good breasts. Sure she can use echo location, but that makes her a freak not a marvel. So, if you are blind, I urge you to stick to your guide dog or cane and never go near a bat. Let’s keep batman to fiction, to comics and films, let’s not pervert nature just so we can find out where a lamp post or a post box is.

The people of MARS are clever, leading experts in their own fields. It is my hope they find a new route to explore, a new challenge to turn their not inconsiderable minds to. Leave genetics alone and find out a way to stop my boyfriend from having headaches every night– now that would really be awesome!

By I. C. Cox

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