In Work on Blindness, Alumnus Seeks Link to Autism

by Joe McGonegal on September 15, 2014 · 1 comment

in Science

Working to cure congenital blindness in children in rural India, Pawan Sinha SM ’92, PhD ’95 always has plenty of work to do. But in his line of work, there’s no shortage of inspiring stories.

There’s the note he got recently from Dick Neergaard ’54, who had heard his Tech Day talk back in 2009. Neergaard had visited rural India two decades ago and encountered a farmer and his young blind daughter pleading for $500 for surgery to restore her sight.

Professor Pawan Sinha SM '92, PhD '95. Photo: Ed Quinn.

Professor Pawan Sinha SM ’92, PhD ’95. Photo: Ed Quinn.

Neergaard had demurred, but later couldn’t forgive himself for refusing. Along with the note, Neergaard sent Sinha’s Project Prakash a check for $750. “This consists of the $500 I’d wanted to give the farmer, plus five years worth of interest and currency adjustment,” Neergaard wrote.

This summer, at the MIT Club of New Delhi’s 25th anniversary event, Sinha introduced two patients from the Prakash clinic in New Delhi, where his team conducts clinical and computational research on blindness and sight in children after curing dozens of them each summer.

The two children, named Junaid and Kavita, illustrated the impact of Sinha’s work. Junaid, Sinha remarked, was cured, and to prove it by he led Kavita to the podium.  “And as for Kavita? Today is the last day of her life as a blind person,” Sinha announced.

“Everyone in the room was in tears,” said Sinha. “And I concluded by saying, ‘Why is it that MIT folks tend to congregate in these kinds of gatherings? Because we believe that together we can accomplish great things.”

Sinha founded Project Prakash in his native India based on the immediate need but also as a lab where he and fellow researchers—10 PhD students and postdocs have accompanied him each summer—could research the plasticity of the brain. After earning notable publicity for his work, delivering a TED Talk, and receiving top awards in science, Sinha’s work has grown, both in India and on campus. He hopes to fund a $17 million center in the years ahead to spread this Prakash—the Hindi word for “light”—even further.

Sinha presents Junaid and Kavita, who was treated for blindness the next day.

Sinha presents Junaid and Kavita, who was treated for blindness the next day.

Every child matters to Sinha, but one in particular made this summer’s trip worthwhile.

“Last year, I had met a wonderful little child who had the same name as my late sister: Punam,” he said. “My sister had always wanted to be a pediatrician. Unfortunately, one year after becoming a doctor, she passed away. I always had this sense of not having done enough for her, so meeting Punam, it felt like I had the chance to do something.”

This summer, Sinha traveled far into the Indo-Ganga plains again, 600 miles from New Delhi, to find Punam and bring her to the Prakash clinic. When they returned for her surgery, Sinha noticed the date on his calendar: his sister’s birthday.

In his research, Sinha is in the process of authoring an equally inspiring story. In August, he sent a new paper out for publication, entitled “The magical world of autism: autism as a disorder of prediction.” In it he and his co-authors outline new findings about the link between cognitive perception and autism.

“What’s allowing the Prakash child to overcome blindness might be that which is compromised in autism,” Sinha says. “The current hypothesis is that this ability to extract temporal regularities from the world is perhaps compromised in both blindness and autism.”

Sinha is happy to share such news with his sponsors, in particular the National Institute of Health. “The study group at NIH has taken the longer view about my work: that the science that would emerge from this project would transcend national boundaries,” he says. “And indeed, that’s what we see happening.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Emil Friedman September 15, 2014 at 8:20 pm

What sort of blindness is curable by an apparently simple surgical procedure?

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