A joint Sino-US research project has reportedly enhanced the vision of lab rodents by using a novel nanomaterial to enable them to see infrared light. Participating scientists told reporters the breakthrough could one day equip humans with infrared vision. The research was a collaboration between the Hefei, Anhui-based University of Science and Technology of China and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The results were published in the international science journal Cell this week.

Humans and other mammals are limited to what is termed the visible light range, which means radiation with wavelengths shorter or longer than that range, including infrared, cannot be perceived by human eyes.

A multidisciplinary group of scientists in the two countries injected composite nanoparticles into the eyes of mice, which gave them infrared vision for up to 10 weeks, as the particles could absorb infrared light and convert it into green visible light, according to lead scientist Bao Jin.

In their study, scientists made injectable photoreceptor-binding nanoparticles that could anchor tightly to photoreceptor cells in a mammal’s retina and act as tiny infrared-light transducers. When infrared light hit the retina, the nanoparticles captured the longer infrared wavelengths and emitted shorter wavelengths within the visible light range. The nearby rod or cone could then absorb the shorter wavelength and send a normal signal to the brain, as if visible light had hit the retina.

Researchers believe they could further fine-tune the bio-integrated technology so that it could better suit human eyes, and the injection process has few side effects. The technology could not only generate super vision for humans but, more important, provide a therapeutic solution to human red-color vision deficits.

Currently, infrared technology relies on detectors and cameras with outside power sources to obtain infrared images, as people, animals and objects emit infrared light and radiation as they constantly give off heat. The new nanotechnology has potential in other fields including security and military operations.

For instance, troops in the future deployed for night missions could theoretically dispense with their night-vision goggles and still see in low-light conditions with the naked eye.