With a simple injection that contains nanoparticles, mice can be given infrared vision, for up to 10 weeks without any obvious side effect, the study found. But he said it was unclear just how sharp the infrared vision would be in humans, and he cautioned that the injections might damage delicate structures in the eye.
A multidisciplinary group of scientists led by Xue and Jin Bao at the University of Science and Technology of China as well as Gang Han at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, developed the nanotechnology to work with the eye's existing structures.
Mice like humans are restricted to seeing a range of wavelengths of light called visible light, which is no longer than 700 nanometres and at the red end of the visible spectrum.
"The visible light that can be perceived by human's natural vision occupies just a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum", says senior author Tian Xue of the University of Science and Technology of China.
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Illustration of the infrared-to-visible-light conversion process.
"For ordinary people", he added, "we may also see our sky in a completely different way" both at night and during the day because many celestial objects give off infrared light. Once the tiny antennae were in place, the scientists hypothesized, the nanoparticles would convert infrared light into shorter wavelengths, which the animals would then perceive as green light. Mice that were injected with the nanoparticles showed unconscious physical reactions to infrared light detection, while those that received only a buffer solution couldn't see the infrared light.
The mice were injected with photon "up-conversion" nanoparticles that converted low-energy, invisible protons, like near-infrared light, to high-energy ones that are visible.
The Chinese scientists behind the work said that it could pave the way for soldiers to be given "super vision" and help to treat forms of colour-blindness. Occasionally, the mice suffered from cloudy corneas from the injections, but these symptoms cleared up within a week.
The researchers believe the bio-integrated nanoparticles are more desirable for potential infrared applications in civilian encryption, security and military operations. Once those particles were in a mouse's eye, the proteins guided them to photoreceptor cells in the retina, essentially glueing the particles to those cells.
"This is an exciting subject because the technology we made possible here could eventually enable human beings to see beyond our natural capabilities".