SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Orlando, FLA. — Robyn Suriano reports that a common form of blindness may be treated with a computer chip in the future, giving limited vision to people who otherwise would live in darkness. The chip would stimulate the vision-producing region of the brain after receiving signals from video cameras mounted on special eyeglasses.
Much work still needs to be done, but scientists believe the approach could help people who lose their vision when the light-sensing cells in their eyes – or photoreceptors – fail. One form of blindness, age-related macular degeneration, would be a candidate for the treatment.
“This technology is still in its infancy, but clearly there is reason for hope and enthusiasm,” said Richard Normann, a leading researcher in the field.
Normann spoke at Visions 2000, a national conference on blindness being held this week in Orlando, Fla. The event was organized by the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a Maryland-based group that funds research and education efforts.
The vision chip has been studied since the 1960s, but new computer advancements have accelerated work, said Normann, a professor of bioengineering, physiology and ophthalmology at the University of Utah.
His research focuses on making a computer chip – a quarter-inch square of silicon – that could be implanted surgically in the region of the brain that controls vision.
Other U.S. and international groups are working on chips that would be implanted on the retina, a membrane at the back of the eye that holds the basic machinery for vision. Although not applicable to every form of blindness, the technology might help people with macular degeneration.
In those who suffer from the disease, the retina doesn’t work, but the rest of the vision machinery is intact. The optic nerves in the brain can still receive and transmit signals. “There’s a huge amount of visual processing ability just sitting there waiting to be tapped into,” Normann said.
Though it may be a decade or more before the technology is available, Dan Day of Altamonte Springs, Fla., is optimistic about the advances that are being made. Born with an inherited condition that eventually will lead to blindness, Day is president of the local branch of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. His condition is called retinitis pigmentosa.
“There is so much hope and optimism today compared to even just a few years ago,” said Day, who works as a systems analyst. “There’s really a feeling that we’re on the verge of something. It’s extremely uplifting.”