By Janet Fang
Posting in Technology
Scientists have successfully implanted microchips in the retinas of three blind volunteers, allowing them to see shapes and letters within days of surgery.
Retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration are diseases that affect the light receptors in the retina, one of the eyeball's outer layers.
Whether hereditary or age-related, they cause vision loss and lead to the eventual blindness of over 15 million people around the world.
In a Proceedings of the Royal Society B study, Eberhart Zrenner from the University of Tuebingen in Germany and colleagues describe their device as a subretinal electronic chip that can be surgically implanted underneath the retina, in effect replacing the light receptors that were lost.
The chip is about three millimeters wide with 1,500 pixel-generating elements, each with its own electrode. Each electrode, in turn, provides an electrical stimulus to nearby neurons, reflecting the visual signal that would normally be received by the degenerated photoreceptor.
The three volunteers in this study used to possess good vision, but had all been blind for at least five years.
After surgery, all three patients were able to visually locate bright objects that were placed on a dark tabletop in front of them. One patient, Miikka, was able to name and describe a variety of everyday objects, geometric patterns, different fruits, and clock faces. He was even able to discern varying shades of gray and approach people in a room using his newly restored visual abilities.
Miikka also noticed when his named was misspelled in giant white letters.
Here's a look:
(Interested in more? You can watch more videos about the feat on the Royal Society's website.)
The results of this pilot study, according to the authors, “provide strong evidence that the visual functions of patients blinded by a hereditary retinal dystrophy can, in principle, be restored to a degree sufficient for use in daily life."
While this study presents proof-of-concept that such devices can restore useful vision in blind human subjects, Zrenner says, the ultimate goal of broad clinical application will take time to develop.
The device is developed by Retinal Implant AG together with the Institute for Ophthalmic Research at the University of Tuebingen.
Nov 5, 2010
I have to agree with techU: Vision problems in the young can lead to life-long perceptual difficulties. I didn't get glasses 'till I was 9 and, even when my vision was corrected to better than normal, I still had trouble spotting street signs and other small distant objects. In ROTC, I did OK shooting at static targets, but I was hopeless on the range with pop-up targets: I just didn't pick 'em up, and I doubt if I would have ever improved enough to qualify, even using thousands of rounds. Likewise when a friend took me skeet shooting - I just didn't spot the clay pigeon quick enough to get on target. It seems that, on account of living in a fuzzy world at some critical stage of development, it seems I lack some skills for distant vision to be all that useful.
Finally! A technological advancement that's useful for something other than personal entertainment... Wii, Kinect... iPad... 3D TV... w/e
techU said "trialling a mere 1,500 pixel in todays super high def IC manufacture is a tad shameful in 2010/11" I imagine the problem is not so much the resolution of the microchip as the difficulty of connecting the outputs to the nerves that will carry the impulses to the brain. You would start with enough connections to test the feasibility of the technique but not so many as to make the operation impracticable.
"IMWeira 7: said...It is also well to remember that those born blind have a different problem. Just as you must crawl before you walk you must train your brain to see at certain stages of your life. By the time you are a few years old your brain is set up to recognize the world you live in. It is imperative to correct children's vision as young as possible because otherwise while you can give them the opportunity to see, you cannot make them look." you sound very adamant in that IMWeira, and indeed it would seem that is the usual thinking, however remember too, that once the earth was thought to be flat... while its a reasonable hypothesis , wheres a actual data and real life trails to test that, for instance did ANY blind since berth adults take part or even offered to take part in these trials here,( low res and all that they are, many people would probably still take whatever is on offer, even if it was to low a pixel count today in my opinion OC). and did they receive training and full support to try and encourage any visual path re-growth/re-training of the brains path ways to take this new data their pushing into their brain. real data in cooperation with real life blind test subjects is what matter here, to the best standard that can be made available at the time of manufacture, if just one in a 100 show new pathway growth then we can chance our mind an place that life blind can never see hypothesis into a failed pile and be happier for it.
while it's awesome that these people can now see to an extent, trialling a mere 1,500 pixel in todays super high def IC manufacture is a tad shameful in 2010/11 for a medical device a whole three millimeters wide, in fact in that space today you could probably easily get 9000 pixels perhaps a lot more for one off medical application trials. these people cant exactly go ripping out these low pixel samples and replace them with up and updated versions next year can they.
@IMWeira: Oliver Sacks mentions this very issue in his book Musicophilia when talking about a patient who had been virtually blind until age 50: ...vision was taxing for him, and when he shaved, for example, he could see and recognize his face in the mirror at first, but after a few minutes, he would have to struggle to hold on to a recognizable visual world. Finally, he would give up and shave by touch, because the visual image of his face had decomposed into unrecognizable fragments.
I saw an article about the Israeli camera eyes a few months back. Now it's going to be a race to see which technology is better and gives more bang for the buck. Which brings us to another discussion, how will the poor afford a new set of eyes....
It is good to give hope to those who must have the story read to them. It is also well to remember that those born blind have a different problem. Just as you must crawl before you walk you must train your brain to see at certain stages of your life. By the time you are a few years old your brain is set up to recognize the world you live in. It is imperative to correct children's vision as young as possible because otherwise while you can give them the opportunity to see, you cannot make them look. For example; if I gave you glasses that enabled you to see men walking around on some planet outside of our solar system you would be fascinated. Maybe for hours a day. But when it came time to eat or play or go to your job, you would take those lenses off because you have no need of such keen vision to live your life. It is nearly impossible to get people to wear glasses or corrective lenses if their vision is better than 20/50. They can cope and they did not learn to "need" a greater field. If you are used to 20/20 then you will be inclined to want to see crisper as that is what your brain is looking for and you will do what it takes to get that. It is all a matter of what your brain expects and wants and that depends on early training. If you could never see it will be, I suspect, impossible to give you anything but an approximation of vision.
You can pack quite a bit of readable 3 by 5 pixel text into a grid of that size. And a well lite environment with strong contrasts can be quite navigable. Probably won't see anything smaller than a white softball on the floor though; so normal blind person precautions in keeping a clutter free environment are still required.
There is currently a trial in Israel implanting a small camera and tying it into the optic nerve. We got the info at LHOB but can find little info on it as it seems almost fiction. has anyone come across this info ?
My mom went blind due to retinal detachment when I was still in college. I had a procedure just two years ago to thicken a retina that was about to detach. Just an anecdote. Nice debut, Janet. Welcome to the beat.