Saturday, August 18, 2012

Deciphering the neural code can restore vision

Our eyes are responsible for gathering the required light to create vision in our brains. Light is absorbed on the retina, a layer that is comparable to an analogue film used to capture images or video. In order to get the information to the brain, neural cells transform incoming light to electrical pulses, suitable to be interpreted by the brain. When the retina does not work, no more pulses are sent to the brain, resulting in blindness. This can be overcome with artificial electrical stimulation using implants, but it has proven to be hard to mimic the patterns that neural cells use to communicate with the brain. However, scientists have managed to 'crack the code', enabling us to restore vision to normal levels.

Retina implants are nothing new, and they are already used to restore vision in blind patients. However, the vision they provide is limited, because the electrical impulses that are generated based on incoming light are not quite comparable to the patterns that neural cells make. In order to let synthetic retinas create biological patterns that are 'understandable' for the brain, researchers from Cornell University set out to create algorithms that mimic the biological patterns.

After they discovered a set of useful algorithms, they implemented them to improve eye implants used to restore vision. The first experiments were performed in mice, and the scientists showed their algorithms were able to enable vision in blind mice, up to near-normal levels. However, the neural code has also been 'cracked' in monkeys, which have retinas that are almost identical to humans. That means that this proof-of-concept could rapidly find its way to human implants.

In order to establish that retina implants fitted with the algorithms from Cornell University do their job, clinical trials are necessary. Because eye implants restoring vision are already being used, such experiments could be started on short notice. Current synthetic retinas offer limited vision, which means that restoring our ability to see back to normal levels would be a huge step forward. The technology from Cornell University is, however, not the only attempt to improve the quality of eye implants: scientists already showed a concept that involved the use of lasers. Aside from using synthetics, gene therapy may also be an option.

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