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Bats provide new clues to help blind

BLIND people have been finding their way around – using the same sonar skills that bats, whales and many other species apply to identify objects in the dark.

Researchers leading the 10-week study were “very excited” by the results and believe it’s a skill that could be valuable in rehabilitating people with vision loss, and for those who face losing their sight later in life,

Echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound wave that bounces off an object, returning an echo that provides information about that object’s distance and size.

Some people can also echolocate by clicking their tongues, a behaviour shared by only a few other animals, including the Vietnamese pygmy dormouse, which is effectively blind.

It was previously thought that the stigma around making the required clicks in social environments could put people off learning the method.

But Dr Lore Thaler, who led the new study, said: “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback.”

Their 10-week study involved blind and sighted participants between 21 and 79, and a three-month follow up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life.

Both sighted and blind people improved considerably on all measures, and in some cases performed comparatively to expert echolocators at the end of their training.

Importantly, neither age nor blindness was a limiting factor in participants’ rate of learning or their ability to apply echolocation skills to new, untrained tasks. And in the follow up survey, all participants who were blind reported improved mobility, with 83% reporting better independence and wellbeing.

Click-based echolocation is not currently taught as part of mobility training and rehabilitation for blind people.

The results of the study suggested blind people who use echolocation and people new to echolocation actually are confident to use it in social situations, and concerns around the perceived stigma are perhaps much smaller than previously thought.

Dr Thaler, from Durham University’s Department of Psychology, said “People who took part in our study reported a positive effect on their mobility, independence and wellbeing.

“We are very excited about this and feel it would make sense to provide information and training in click-based echolocation to people who still have good functional vision, but are expected to lose vision later in life because of progressive degenerative eye conditions.”


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