Researchers in Australia are developing a novel treatment for visual impairment that doesn’t involve the reparation of the eyes or visual system. Instead, they intend to place electrical implants directly into patients’ brains, which will then stimulate the appropriate neurons in order to produce a visual image.
Designed by scientists at Monash University in Melbourne, the technology includes a pair of glasses with an inbuilt camera, which then transmits data about what it sees to the cortical implant. This is made up of 11 small tiles, which receive wireless signals from the transmitter in the glasses and subsequently stimulate the visual cortex using an array of tiny electrodes.
According to New Scientist, each of these electrodes will generate a signal that the user will perceive as a dot of light, meaning that when all are stimulated, they should create an image consisting of 500 such dots. While this may not equate to the full visionary experience of people with unimpeded eyesight, it should at least enable users to detect faces and other basic features of the world around them.
The device is being developed as a treatment for people with vision impairment caused by a range of different conditions, including physical injuries, age-related degeneration and glaucoma – which occurs when excess fluids build up within the eyes. According to the Monash Vision Direct website, the implant can be used to supplement the existing eyesight of each user, and can therefore be worn by those who are both partially and totally blind.
Clinical trials of the so-called bionic eye are about to begin, with the first volunteers set to be given the implant next year. To do so, surgeons will remove a small section of the skull and place the device directly onto the surface of the visual cortex of the brain, before replacing the piece of skull. The visual cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for processing visual information.
In recent years, a number of other technological solutions to visionary impairment have been proposed and developed. Notably, a retinal implant that replaces the retina by communicating with the brain via the optical nerve was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013. However, the Monash product stands apart from these attempts since it offers an entirely new pathway for stimulating the visual cortex – one which bypasses the eyes and visual system entirely.