In a new study, electrodes implanted in the brain caused parts of patients visual cortex to light up in specific patterns, allowing them to see shapes of letters in their mind’s eyes.
Patient BAA, who is 35, lost her sight when she was 27. She can still detect light and dark, but for all intents and purposes, she is blind. Now, she—and other formerly sighted people—may one day regain a limited form of vision using electrodes implanted in the brain.
The work is a step forward in a field that emerged more than 40 years ago but has made relatively little progress. The findings suggest technical ways to stimulate images in the brain “are now within reach,” says Pieter Roelfsema, a neuroscientist who directs the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam and wasn’t involved in the work.
Research to electrically spur blind people’s brains to see shapes began in the 1970s, when biomedical researcher William Dobelle, then at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City, implanted electrodes in the brain to stimulate the visual cortex. Typically, the rods and cones in retinas translate light waves into neural impulses that travel to the brain. Specialized layers of cells there, known as the visual cortex, process that information for the rest of the brain to use.