Saturday, November 24, 2012

Device prints words directly on a blind person's retina

Blindness is very hard to cure, and it is one of the few things for which there are barely any effective treatments. Being blind is often permanent, but newly developed technologies offer a bit of hope for those who are unable to see. For example, a newly developed eye implant based on laser looks very promising, and the same goes for attempts with gene therapy. Now, scientists from the company Second Sight have developed a device that stimulates the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue of the eye. This way they succeeded in letting blind people read words and even see colour.

Argus II
The people over at Second Sight have dubbed their implant Argus II, and it is basically a device that stimulates the light-sensitive part of the eye electrically. Scientists have gotten increasingly capable of altering neural communication by electric stimulation, which has eventually lead up to the success of the Argus II. By stimulating the retina, the device is more or less 'projecting' things on the eye, and it does so with a grid of 60 electrodes, as visualized below.
Argus II has been implanted in over 50 people, according to the company who designed and developed the device. Tests showed that electrically stimulating the retina enables us to project content: the researchers conducting the study performed stimulation in order to print letters on the subjects' retinas, and showed that they were being recognized with 80 percent accuracy. The participants were also able to spatially distinguish letters when more than one was projected at a given time, which means they are capable of reading words. In addition, the blind participants were able to 'see' colour due to electric stimulation.

Second Sight has developed a fine device that could form the basis for restoring vision in blind people. While electric stimulation is not new, the company has shown it can actually be functional. Compared with other implants, the company thinks it can offer faster projection. Nevertheless, it will likely take a while before such implants can be marketed. A device like the Argus II needs to be attached to a camera that registers the outside world, which would consequently need to be project its images on the retina. And achieving real life vision is a lot harder than projecting a couple of letters.

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