New technology helps blind people see

Scientists have found a way to deliver images directly from the camera to the brains of the blind. The technology is still at an early stage of development, but has brought hope for a better life for the blind.

'Looking' without eyes

Research by scientists in Houston (USA) is a big step in creating visual implants , allowing blind people to regain part of the lost visual ability. Although such a device will be marketed for many years, thanks to the work of scientists, visually impaired people participating in research can 'see' the boundaries of shapes, based on a sequence of electrical signals sent by the camera to the brain.

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Vision implants allow blind people to regain part of their lost vision. 

The new approach 'ignores' the eyes and provides chains of electrical signals directly to the brain, sensing the different shapes emitting light. Further research work on visual implants may return part of the 'seeing' ability to people who are blind or have a damaged optic nerve.

The electrical stimulation of the visual cortex causes people treated in this way to 'see' flashes of light called firefly (phosphene). These are phenomena that originate not in light but in the nervous system. In the experiment, the scientists used electricity as a pen to identify shapes directly onto the visual cortex.

Provide images directly to the brain

Participating in the experiment, there were six volunteers, who had electrodes attached to their brains. Among them, 2 are blind, and 4 have normal vision.

Implanting something on the brain is a particularly dangerous job, so four participants with the above-mentioned normal vision tests were implanted in the framework of the treatment program for different types of epilepsy. Two blind people agreed to have an implant implanted in the brain as part of research in visual implant devices.

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This process is comparable to writing a letter 'N' with your finger on your back.

Scientists in turn stimulated the electrodes in a literal sequence. This process is comparable to writing a letter 'N' on your back of a second person: moving your finger up, then down and then up. This method helps the signal receiver perceive the shapes.

The implant works both in sighted and visually impaired people (with vision loss in adulthood). Although the technology is still in its infancy, implanting the device into the brain can open up the ability to use the device to stimulate the brain and return, in part, vision.

'When we use electric stimulation to' write words 'directly onto the patients' brains, they can 'see' the letters 'shape' - says scientist Daniel Yoshor, co-author of the study so.

Visual transplant

Previous stimulation of the visual cortex has proved ineffective. Previous methods considered each electrode plugged into the brain as a pixel on the screen. Stimulating many electrodes, scientists have a feeling of 'seeing' bright spots in the study participants, but these people have a hard time recognizing the shape. 'Instead of building shapes from multiple bright spots, we follow the contour lines,' explains Michael Beauchamp, lead author of the study.

So far, people have only tried simple shapes, such as the letters C or W. During the experiment, one of the blind people was able to identify 86 shapes in a minute. However, according to the researchers, the contours surrounding typical objects, such as homes, cars or even relatives' faces, can be depicted directly on the brain.

This approach, according to scientists, suggests that blind people can regain the ability to detect and recognize visible patterns by technology that sends visual information directly into the brain. However, scientists believe that before this technology can be applied in clinical practice, we need to overcome a few obstacles.

'The visual cortex, where the electrodes are implanted, contains half a billion neurons. During the study, we only stimulated a small part of those neurons. The next important step will be to collaborate with neuroscientists in order to develop systems containing thousands of electrodes. 

That will help us stimulate the brain more accurately. Together with the new means, more complete stimulation algorithms will help realize the dream of providing useful visual data directly to the brains of the visually impaired. For many visually impaired people, the ability to 'see' the shape of family members or the ability to self-direct is a great progress, '' said Michael Beauchamp.

Blindness in most elderly blind people is caused by damage to the eyes or optic nerve. For decades, researchers have proposed developing tools that can return the ability to 'see', not through broken eyes, but provide visual information from the camera to the brain. In the journal 'Cell', scientists at the University of Houston School of Medicine describe the implants that stimulate the visual cortex to 'see' shapes without the eyes.
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