Doctors reveal rare condition that causes blind woman, 48, to only see moving objects

Milena Canning has been blind for about one-third of her life. Thirty years ago, she suffered from a respiratory infection and a series of strokes, which landed her in an 8-week-long coma. When she finally woke up, her vision was gone.

At first, Canning, a 48-year-old from Scotland, only saw darkness — but soon, she was surprised with a bright flash of green light.

It looked like a "glint of a sparkly gift bag," Western University in London, Canada, described in an online statement this week.

Canning then began to see glimpses of other moving objects.

"Her daughter’s ponytail bobbing when she walked, but not her daughter’s face; rain dripping down a window, but nothing beyond the glass; and water swirling down a drain, but not a tub already full with water," Western University explained.

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Confused, Canning began to see a local specialist, hoping to find answers. Eventually, she was referred to Jody Culham, a neuropsychologist at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.

Culham and her team conducted several tests, including a functional MRI to measure Canning's brain activity. The team then noticed something that may explain the gaps in eyesight.

“She is missing a piece of brain tissue about the size of an apple at the back of her brain – almost her entire occipital lobes, which process vision,” Culham said in a news release Tuesday. “We think the ‘super-highway’ for the visual system reached a dead end. But rather than shutting down her whole visual system, she developed some ‘back roads’ that could bypass the superhighway to bring some vision – especially motion – to other parts of the brain.”

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The rare phenomenon is known as Riddoch syndrome, which is caused by damage to the occipital lobe. Culham's findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Neuropsychologia in May.

According to Western University, only a handful of cases have been reported over the years and "none studied so extensively as this."

“This work may be the richest characterization ever conducted of a single patient’s visual system,” Culham said. “She has shown this very profound recovery of vision, based on her perception of motion.”

Culham plans to continue monitoring Canning to note any changes in brain activity, which may impact her vision. 

“I can’t see like normal people see or like I used to see. The things I’m seeing are really strange. There is something happening and my brain is trying to rewire itself or trying different pathways,” Canning said.