Echolocation may help people with vision loss – study
People who are blind are able to perform a variety of practical and navigation tasks better using echolocation, new research suggests.
Echolocation occurs when an animal makes a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space.
While the technique is well known in whales and bats, previous research has also indicated that some blind people can use click echolocation to assess spaces and improve their navigation skills.
A team of researchers, led by Dr Lore Thaler of Durham University, looked at the factors that determine how people learn this skill.
During a 10-week training program, the team studied how blindness and age affect learning to click echolocation, and how learning this skill affects the daily lives of blind people. .
Blind and sighted participants aged 21 to 79 participated in 20 training sessions of two to three hours during the study period.
Blind participants also participated in a three-month follow-up survey assessing the effects of training on their daily lives.
The researchers found that both sighted and blind people improved significantly on all measures and in some cases had comparative performance with expert echolocators at the end of training.
In some cases, sighted people even performed better than blind people.
The study also found that neither age nor blindness was a limiting factor in participants’ learning rate or their ability to apply their echolocation skills to new untrained tasks.
Additionally, in the follow-up survey, all blind participants reported improved mobility, and 83% reported better independence and well-being.
The researchers say that overall, the results suggest that the ability to learn click-based echolocation is not severely limited by age or vision level.
This has positive implications for the rehabilitation of people with vision loss or in the early stages of progressive vision loss, they say.
Dr Thaler said: “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback.
“People who participated in our study reported that click-based echolocation training had a positive effect on their mobility, independence and well-being, proving that the improvements we observed in the lab were transformed into positive benefits for life outside the laboratory.
“We are very excited about this and think it would make sense to provide click-based echolocation information and training to people who may still have good functional vision, but who are expected to lose vision later in life. due to progressive degenerative eye diseases. “
Click echolocation is not currently taught as part of mobility training and rehabilitation of blind people.
And experts say it’s also possible that some people are reluctant to use it due to a perceived stigma around required clicks in social environments.
Despite this, the results indicate that blind people who use echolocation, and people new to echolocation, are confident about its use in social situations, the researchers said.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, was funded by a grant from the United Kingdom’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and a grant from the Network for Social Change.