Scientists have partially restored sight to blind people using a paradigm-shifting implant that wires images directly to the brain.
The new method, known as Orion, uses a video camera attached to a pair of glasses that sends information to electrodes implanted directly into the visual cortex of the brain, bypassing broken optical nerves that no longer work.
A team of neurosurgeons from Baylor Medical College in Texas and the University of California, Los Angeles has carried out the surgical procedure on six people with some impressive results.
“So far the results are promising. While our subjects describe being able to identify where certain objects are located, right now they are not seeing forms or clear edges; they see a small number of points of light corresponding to where that object is located,” Dr William Bosking, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Baylor, said in a statement.
While the patients still don’t have crystal clear vision, they are now able to pick up on basic visual forms, such as where the sidewalk and grass are or the location of a window. That’s enough to make a huge difference to their day-to-day life.
“It may not be full vision yet, but it’s something. And for somebody that hasn’t seen anything in 25.5 years, that is a huge accomplishment,” Benjamin Spencer, one of the study subjects who received the implant, said in a video release (below).
Previous attempts to restore eyesight have often focused on the eye itself, such as one study in 2018 that saw researchers implant tiny gold prosthetic photoreceptors into the eyes of blind mice. The beauty of this new implant lies in the fact it bypasses broken optical nerves. The implant consists of 60 electrodes that can deliver patterns of stimulation to the visual part of the brain. In patients who were not born blind, the brain can still use this raw information to piece together the environment around them.
The project is still in its early stages, only having been successfully demonstrated on half a dozen people. Nevertheless, the researchers are optimistic that their technology could be fine-tuned and built upon in years to come, potentially to the point where they are able to restore functional sight to the blind.
“When you think of vision, you think of the eyes, but most of the work is being done in the brain. The impulses of light that are projected onto the retina are converted into neural signals that are transmitted along the optic nerve to parts of the brain,” explained Dr Daniel Yoshor, chair and professor of neurosurgery at Baylor.
“Theoretically, if we had hundreds of thousands of electrodes in the brain we could produce a rich visual image. Think of a painting that uses pointillism, where thousands of tiny spots come together to create a full image,” Yoshor continued. “We could potentially do the same by stimulating thousands of spots on the occipital part of the brain.”