Newly-developed technology enables eyesight by connecting a computer directly to the brain of blind individuals, completely bypassing the eye and damaged optical nerves to enable sight. This technology, the research for which is helmed by Eduardo Fernandez, director of neuroengineering at the University of Miguel Hernandez, in Elche, Spain, may bring help to people living with blindness due to nerve damage.
Fernandez is among a group of researchers leading the way in this groundbreaking technology for the treatment of blindness due to nerve damage. In an experimental project, detailed in a new MIT Technology Review article, Fernandez tested out years’ worth of research on his first human subject to receive an eyesight-enabling implant embedded into her brain.
Fifty-seven-year-old Bernardeta Gómez is one of the 39 million people worldwide living with blindness. Gómez lost her eyesight 16 years ago when toxin exposure destroyed the bundles of the nerves that connect her eyes to her brain. Because the root of her blindness occurs at the nerve level, current treatment options like artificial eyes or retinas aren’t suitable for Gómez. Fernandez’s solution may be the ticket for people who live with blindness due to nerve damage. It worked for Gómez, who tried the treatment for a six-month period starting in late 2018, and saw the world around her for the first time in 16 years.
Brain Implant for Blindness
Fernandez’s system includes a pair of glasses fitted with a camera that picks up everything in front of the viewer. This device hooks up to a computer that translates the camera’s live video feed into electronic signals. Next, the signals travel to a port embedded in the back of the skull. The port connects to a 100-electrode implant in the visual cortex in the rear of the user’s brain. The end result is a low-resolution image represented by glowing white and yellow dots and shapes. Wearing the glasses, Gómez can make out things like letters, basic shapes, lights, and silhouettes of objects and people.
Fernandez hopes future applications will allow for multiple implants in the wearer, leading to higher-res images and fully restored vision.
As full of possibility as this works sounds, Fernandez stresses his system is far from being perfect. Speaking with MIT Tech he explains, “We hope to have a system people can use, but right now we’re just conducting early experiments.”
This is why the prosthesis is only approved for testing over a six-month period. It’s currently unclear how the body will react to long-term use.
Fernandez’s short term plans center around getting more subjects for further feedback and improvements.
“Berna was our first patient, but over the next couple of years we will install implants in five more blind people,” Fernandez told MIT Tech. “We had done similar experiments in animals, but a cat or a monkey can’t explain what it’s seeing.”
With enough feedback and iterations, we might be inching closer to a cure for blindness in the near future.
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