Developed "artificial retina" which transmits vision directly into the brains of blind patients

Research is developing an innovative way to restore sight to the blind through brain stimulation

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Research is developing an innovative way to restore sight to the blind through brain stimulation

A team of researchers is working for restore sight to the blind, directly stimulating their brains and completely bypassing their eyes. Current studies to address blindness generally revolve around the use of eye implants or procedures to restore the (currently limited) function of the eye. However, a team of researchers is working on an alternative approach - bypassing the eyeball entirely.

A systematic review 

Lo study involves the use of one artificial retina, mounted on a normal pair of glasses, which feeds information directly into users' brains. The end result is that users can perceive images of what the retina can see. Basically, they are working on creating artificial eyes.

The device picks up light from a field of view in front of the glasses, and encodes it into electrical signals that the brain can understand. These are then transmitted to a series of 96 microelectrodes implanted in the user's brain. The retina itself measures approximately 4mm (0,15in) wide and each electrode is 1,5mm (0,05in) long. These electrodes make direct contact with the visual cortex of the brain. Here, they both provide data to the neurons and monitor their activity.

So far there is encouraging data on the validity of this approach: they worked with a 57-year-old woman who had been blind for over 16 years. After a period of training, which was necessary to teach her to interpret the images produced by the device, she successfully identified the letters and outlines of some objects.

The device was removed 6 months after implantation with no adverse effects. During this time, the authors worked with their participant to document exactly how his brain activity responded to the device, to analyze the learning process, and to verify whether using this device would lead to physical changes in the brain.


@JCI/ The Journal of Clinical Investigation

The good news is that the system does not appear to interfere negatively with the functioning of the visual cortex or brain. The authors add that since the system requires lower levels of electrical energy to function than other systems that involve electrode stimulation of the brain, it should also be safe enough to use.

This technology is still a long way from being practical and probably even further from being commercially available. There are still many problems to be solved before this can happen, and addressing them safely will take a lot of time and further research. 

The team is working on and expanding their experiments to include many more blind participants. They are also considering stimulating more neurons at the same time, which should allow the retina to produce much more complex images. Although retinal implants are developing, many patients cannot benefit from them, such as people who have suffered damage to their optic nerves. So, the only way around this damage right now is send visual information directly to the brain.

This study therefore demonstrates that it can be done and also shows that our brains can still process visual information even after a prolonged period of total blindness, giving cause for hope to many people around the world who have lost their sight.

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Photos: Jci

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