Scientists give blind people ‘sight’ by drawing shapes directly on their brains
A team of researchers from UCLA and Baylor have developed a method for drawing symbols, including letter and shapes directly on the human brain using electrical stimulation. The result allows individuals who’ve entirely lost their sense of vision to perceive the shapes as “sights.”
The new process bypasses the human eye and the optic nerve and uses electricity to stimulate implanted electrodes at the visual cortex, located in the back of the brain. It works through dynamic stimulation, meaning instead of sending stimulation in the shape of a completely formed letter, the researchers trace the letter directly on the brain in real-time.
It’s the same principal as writing on the palm of your hand with your finger. Your palm can tell what you are writing as you form each letter because they can follow the unfolding process. Instead of forcing all the electrodes to send information in the shape of, for example, a letter U all at once, the system lights up the electrodes sequentially so the recipient can easily determine the shape being conveyed.
The researchers tested their system on two blind subjects and also four sighted subjects who already had brain implants as part of treatment for epilepsy. Under different paradigms, participants regularly perceived the proper shape in their minds with between 80 and 93 percent accuracy.
Participants managed to correctly report up to 86 correct answers per minute. This level of rapid information delivery could lead to a complete revolution in accessibility for the visually impaired.
Imagine connected sensors in public spaces that could alert visually impaired people to everything from when it’s safe to cross the street to which way the produce aisle is in a grocery store using nothing but the power of electrical suggestion. While the researchers have only tested simple shapes such as the letter C and Z, there’s plenty that can be done with just numbers, letters, and arrows.
For the time being, this tech is in the experimental stage. The need for invasive implants makes it less than optimal for treating visual impairment in its current iteration. But it’s a fascinating step in the right direction.