PEOPLE with vision loss can learn to navigate their surroundings using a technique more commonly associated with bats and dolphins.
In a recent experiment, British researchers were able to teach blind participants to use tongue-clicking to echolocate in just ten weeks.
The new ability improved mobility and independence, University of Durham scientists said.
They said that visually impaired people should be prescribed echolocation classes to help them get around.
Known as nature’s sonar system, echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound that is reflected off objects in the area.
The returning echoes provide information about the surrounding space and allow the animal to locate distant or invisible objects.
Common in bats, whales and dolphins, previous research has shown that some blind people can also use echolocation to judge spaces.
In a study published last year, a team of scientists led by Dr. Lore Thaler of Durham University how people learn this skill.
Over the course of a 10-week training program, they examined how blindness and age affect learning of click-based echolocation.
The team also studied how learning this skill affects the daily lives of blind people.
Blind and sighted participants between the ages of 21 and 79 took part in the study.
They took part in 20 two- to three-hour training sessions during the study period.
Over the course of the experiment, researchers were able to teach participants how to use “click echolocation.”
They made a clicking sound with their tongues to avoid obstacles in their vicinity.
Participants were able to discern the size and orientation of objects from the bouncing calls of their clicks.
They were taught using virtual mazes to identify the relative sizes of objects. They were also trained to navigate outside of the lab.
Although this ability can be very useful, very few blind people are trained to use click echolocation.
Experts have been trying to spread the word for years, and the study suggests that a simple exercise program is all that’s required.
“I can’t think of any other work with blind participants that has received such enthusiastic feedback,” said Thaler.
The research was published in June 2021 in the journal Plos One.
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