The latest iteration of a type of photosensitive particle first discovered over a century ago may lead to a cure for certain types of blindness, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The new molecule, rhodopsin 7 (Rh7), was found in the brains of fruit flies, long known for having six other variations of the molecule to assist with visual perception. Rh7 functions as the insect’s alarm clock, determining sleep and wake times, according to an NIH press release.
Craig Montell, the study’s lead author and a biology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, characterized the discovery as a scientific milestone.
“Rh7 is the first example of a rhodopsin that is important in setting circadian rhythms by being expressed in the central brain, rather than the eye,” Montell said in a press release.
In flies, these brain cells can still be stimulated as light passes through the insect’s transparent skull. A mystery remains, however, as to why humans and other mammals have similar Rh7 cells shielded from light in the brain and spinal cord. The study suggests these hidden cells may respond to light-sensitive receptors in the human eye.
For the National Eye Institute, a co-sponsor of the research, the discovery may help patients retain their eyesight.
“Identifying new roles for light-sensitive opsins is essential for understanding degenerative retinal disorders and developing potential new treatments,” NEI program director Lisa Neuhold said in the press release.
Other study sponsors included the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.