Tag Archives: blindness

Spanish researchers developed an “artificial retina” that beams sight directly into the brain of blind patients

A team of Spanish researchers is working to restore sight to blind people by directly stimulating their brains and bypassing the eyes entirely.

The 57-year-old participant of the study during testing of the device. Image credits Asociación RUVID.

Current efforts to address blindness generally revolve around the use of eye implants or procedures to restore (currently limited) functionality to the eye. However, a team of Spanish researchers is working on an alternative approach: bypassing the eyeball entirely.

Their work involves the use of an artificial retina, mounted on an ordinary pair of glasses, that feeds information directly into the users’ brains. The end result is that users can perceive images of what the retina can see. In essence, they’re working to create artificial eyes.

Eyeball 2.0

“The amount of electric current needed to induce visual perceptions with this type of microelectrode is much lower than the amount needed with electrodes placed on the surface of the brain, which means greater safety” explains Fernández Jover, a Cellular Biology Professor at Miguel Hernández University (UMH) of Spain, who led the research.

The device picks up on light from a visual field in front of the glasses and encodes it into electrical signals that the brain can understand. These are then transmitted to an array of 96 micro-electrodes implanted into a user’s brain.

The retina itself measures around 4 mm (0.15 inches) in width, and each electrode is 1.5 mm (0.05 inches) long. These electrodes come into direct contact with the visual cortex of the brain. Here, they both feed data to the neurons and monitor their activity.

So far, we have encouraging data on the validity of such an approach. The authors successfully tested a 1,000-electrode version of their system on primates last year (although the animals weren’t blind). More recently, they worked with a 57-year-old woman who had been blind for over 16 years. After a training period — needed to teach her how to interpret the images produced by the device — she has successfully identified letters and the outlines of certain objects.

The device was removed 6 months after being implanted with no adverse effects. During this time, the authors worked with their participant to document exactly how her brain activity responds to the device, to analyze the learning process, and to check whether the use of this device would lead to any physical changes in the brain.

Although limited in what images it can produce so far, the good news is that the system doesn’t seem to negatively interfere with the workings of the visual cortex or the wider brain. The authors add that because the system requires lower levels of electrical energy to work than other systems which involve electrode stimulation of the brain, it should also be quite safe to use.

Such technology is still a long way away from being practical in a day-to-day setting, and likely even farther away from being commercially available. There are still many issues to solve before that can happen, and safely addressing these will take a lot of research time and careful tweaking. But the results so far are definitely promising and a sign that we’re going the right way. The current study was limited in scope and duration but, based on the results, the authors are confident that a longer training period with the artificial retina would allow users to more easily recognize what they’re seeing.

The team is now working on continuing their research by expanding their experiments to include many more blind participants. They’re also considering stimulating a greater number of neurons at the same time, which should allow the retina to produce much more complex images in the participants’ minds. During the course of this experiment, they also designed several video games to help their participant learn how to use the device. The experience gained during this study, as well as these video games, will help improve the experience of future users and give them the tools needed to enjoy and understand the experience more readily.

Apart from showcasing the validity of such an approach, the experiments also go a long way to proving that microdevices of this type can be safely implanted and explanted in living humans, and they can interact with our minds and brains in a safe and productive way. Direct electrode stimulation of the brain is a risky proposition, but the team showed that this can be performed using safe, low levels of electrical current and still yield results.

Professor Jover believes that neuroprosthetics such as the one used in this experiment are a necessity for the future. There simply aren’t any viable alternative treatments of aids for blind people right now. Although retina prostheses are being developed, many patients cannot benefit from them, such as people who have suffered damage to their optical nerves. The only way to work around such damage right now is to send visual information directly into the brain.

This study proves that it can be done. It also shows that our brains can still process visual information even after a prolonged period of total blindness, giving cause for hope for many people around the world who have lost their sight.

The paper “Visual percepts evoked with an Intracortical 96-channel microelectrode array inserted in human occipital cortex” has been published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Myanmar eliminates trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness

Trachoma is caused by the bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. In its early stages, trachoma causes conjunctivitis (pink eye) with symptoms appearing within five to 12 days of exposure to the pathogen. As the infection progresses, it causes eye pain and blurred vision.

World Health Organization (WHO) simplified system. (a) Normal conjunctiva, showing area to be examined. (b) Follicular trachomatous inflammation (TF). (c) Intense trachomatous inflammation (TI) (and follicular trachomatous inflammation). (d) Conjunctival scarring (TS). (e) Trichiasis (TT). (f) Corneal opacity (CO).

If left untreated, scarring occurs inside the eyelid leading to the eyelashes turning inward toward the eye (a condition called trichiasis). As the eyelashes scratch against the cornea, it becomes irritated and eventually turns cloudy and can lead to corneal ulcers and vision loss. Generally, it takes years before trachoma can cause vision loss. In the early stages of the disease, antibiotics are very effective but more advanced cases may need surgery to help limit further scarring of the cornea and prevent further loss of vision. A corneal transplant can help if the cornea is so clouded that vision is significantly impaired.

Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness globally and has long been considered a major public health problem in the Southeast Asian nation, with the first Trachoma Control Project initiated in 1964 by the Ministry of Health and Sports, with support from WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

In 2005, trachoma was responsible for 4% of all cases of blindness in Myanmar. From 2010 to 2015, the annual period prevalence of blindness from all causes in the total population was very low in all regions and states, ranging from 0% to 0.023%. By 2018, this prevalence dropped to 0.008%. The WHO Weekly Epidemiological Record in July also reported the number of people at risk of trachoma has been reduced by 91% — from 1.5 billion in 2002, to 136.9 million in May 2020.

In order to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem, there is a WHO-recommended “S.A.F.E.” strategy which includes: Surgery for trichiasis, Antibiotics to clear Chlamydia trachomatis infection, Facial cleanliness, and Environmental improvement to reduce transmission. Community-based interventions also include improved access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and health education promoting behavior change to decrease transmission.

“This remarkable achievement reminds us of the importance of strong political commitment to implement integrated disease elimination measures, public engagement and disease surveillance,” said Dr. Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, WHO Director, Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “The new neglected tropical disease road map for 2021–2030, which will foster these processes globally, should allow us to anticipate more such success stories from countries using WHO-recommended strategies.”

Myanmar is the tenth country worldwide following Cambodia, China, Ghana, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, and Oman to reach this milestone. It remains a public health problem in 44 countries and is responsible for the blindness or visual impairment of an estimated 1.9 million people, most of whom are extremely poor. Regular post-validation trachoma surveys are also planned to provide post-validation surveillance. Successful validation of elimination of trachoma as a public health problem in Myanmar will encourage other health ministries and their partners to continue their efforts against this painful blinding disease.

Blind CEO develops smart cane that can use Google Maps to navigate surroundings

A smart cane is enabling visually impaired people to make use of modern navigation apps. Credit: WeWALK.

Who needs to ask for directions nowadays, when you have realtime information about all nearby shops, bus stops, or grocery stores right at your fingertips? It’s so easy to plan a trip using just about any online maps service. You just plug a destination and you get all the steps you need to make and how long this would all take.

Visually impaired people, however, have extremely limited access to this kind of facility and, for the most part, have to rely on navigating their surroundings the same way they have for ages — using a walking cane.

Turkish engineers at the Young Guru Academy (YGA) and WeWALK want to change all that. The startup has developed a smart cane that uses ultrasonic sensors which relay warnings of nearby obstacles through vibrations in the handle.

The smart cane can be integrated with third-party apps via a smartphone. Credit: WeWALK.

The cane can be paired via Bluetooth with the WeWALK app on a smartphone to offer navigation instructions. Touchpad controls integrated into the cane allows the wearer to control their smartphone without having to take it out of their pockets, thus leaving one hand free for other tasks like carrying groceries.

Built-in speakers also enable the cane to inform users of nearby sites of interest, such as stores or bus stops that they might not be aware of. The cane comes with native integration for Voice Assistant and Google Maps.

This kind of technology could finally enable visually impaired people to have a taste of the GPS-based navigation apps that we’ve all come to take for granted. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 39 million people worldwide who are blind and a quarter billion who are visually impaired.

WeWALK was founded by Kursat Ceylan, who has been blind since birth.

“As a blind person, when I am at the Metro station I don’t know which is my exit … I don’t know which bus is approaching … [or] which stores are around me. That kind of information can be provided with the WeWalk,” he told CNN.

This is clearly some very exciting technology with real potential to improve people’s lives. The biggest challenge lies in pushing this product to the mass market — and the cost is a big obstacle, for the moment. The smart cane is currently priced at $500, something that most people who would benefit from it cannot afford. As the product is scaled, the developers hope that their smart cane will reach more people.

Doctors restore patient’s sight with stem cells, offering new hope for cure to blindness

Scientists have developed a specially engineered retinal patch to treat people with sudden, severe sight loss.

The macula lutea (an oval region at the center of the retina) is responsible for the central, high-resolution color vision that is possible in good light; when this kind of vision is impaired due to damage to the macula, the condition is called age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD). Macula lutea means ‘yellow spot’ in Latin.

Picture of the back of the eye showing intermediate age-related macular degeneration.
Via Wikipedia

Douglas Waters, an 86-year-old from London, had lost his vision in July 2015 due to severe AMD. After a few months, Waters became part of a clinical trial developed by UC Santa Barbara researchers that used stem cell-derived ocular cells. He received his retinal implant at Moorfields Eye Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) facility in London, England.

Before the surgery, Water’s sight was very poor, and he wasn’t able to see anything with his right eye. After the surgery, his vision improved so much that he could read the newspaper and help his wife in the garden.

The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, shows groundbreaking results. Researchers could safely and effective implant a specially engineered patch of retinal pigment epithelium cells derived from stem cells to treat people with sudden severe sight loss from wet AMD. This is the first time a completely engineered tissue has been successfully transplanted in this manner.

“This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door on new treatment options for people with age-related macular degeneration,” said co-author Peter Coffey, a professor at UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute and co-director of the campus’s Center for Stem Cell Biology & Engineering.

Douglas Waters was struggling to see up close after developing severe macular degeneration, but 12 months on he is able to read a newspaper again

AMD usually affects people over the age of 50 and accounts for almost 50% of all visual impairment in the developed world. The condition disturbs central vision responsible for reading, leaving the surrounding eyesight normal. Wet AMD is caused by hemorrhage or liquid accumulation into the region of the macula, in the center of the retina. Wet AMD almost always starts as dry AMD. Researchers believe that this new technique will be the future cure for dry AMD.

Scientists wanted to see whether the diseased retinal cells could be replenished using the stem cell patch. They used a specially engineered surgical tool to insert the patch under the affected retina. The operation lasted almost two hours.

Besides Water, another patient, a 60-year-old woman who also suffered from wet AMD, underwent the surgery. The two patients were observed for one year and reported improvements to their vision. The results were incredible — the patients went from being almost blind to reading 60 to 80 words per minute with normal reading glasses.

“We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years,” said Coffey, who founded the London Project to Cure Blindness more than a decade ago.



blind dream

How blind people dream — the experience is just as rich, science says

blind dream

Credit: Pixabay

For most of us blessed with sight, living with blindness is incomprehensible. Sure, you can shut your eyes for a moment — you can even blindfold yourself for a week — but you still wouldn’t come close to the actual thing. Just as incomprehensible as the waking life of the blind is the sleeping one. We unconsciously associate dreams with visuals and take this for granted. But what’s it like for the blind to dream, absent sight?

The fine line between seeing and imagining

Our dreams are a sort of rehash of the reality we perceive, which is why most dreams are boring renditions of what recently happened or could have happened with various tweaks. So, naturally, a blind person’s dream will be experienced similarly to his reality, meaning people who are born blind relive or imagine things without imagery. Those who went blind later in life will experience sight in their dreams, but the longer they lived blind the less common visual experiences will be. Here are a few personal impressions about how the blind dream, gathered from Reddit.

“My boyfriend is blind since birth, this is a question we get quite a lot! He dreams in sound, smell and touch, but not taste. I asked him to lick something in his dream but he hasn’t yet (men, amiright ladies?). He has vivid nightmares, he dreams about being made to drive a taxi but he’s still blind so he just crashes again and again. He never dreams he can see, because he has never seen,” according to reddit user thebatteryhuman.

“When I’m dreaming I see but it’s not ‘seeing’ as I imagine normal people see. It’s the description of echolocation that first made me realize what my dreams look like. Images come in short waves like a bat would see. I hear in my dreams and the sounds echo back at me forming an image of the objects around me. Sometimes I like to think I’m a dream world Daredevil :). But honestly it’s nothing like actually seeing what’s in front of you. Like when I’m walking around my house I can’t see what’s in front of me but do hear changes in sound that clue me in on objects I’m near. I heard that there is a guy who’s been blind from birth and he learned to use echolocation. Watch Stan Lee’s Superhumans. It was on the show. But it gave me idea to try learning how to do it. I can do it in my house if it’s quiet but there are too many sounds outside that are distracting,” wrote reddit user hydropwniks.

Also, someone shared what’s it like for a deaf person to dream, just so you get an idea of how the dream state and waking state are impacted by the stimuli  available to us.

“My dreams are moving pictures. There is no sound really, at least I can’t remember dreams with sound. Nightmares do contain screams though. But my dreams express themselves through intense emotions – fear, love, hate, anger, etc. I experience lucid dream quite a lot because of the emotions. It can be draining. And no, there’s no subtitles or closed captioning,” wrote reddit user ampersandscene who is deaf since birth.

Van Winkle’sSteve Kuusisto, the author of two memoirs on blindness and the director of the honor program at Syracuse, explains dreaming blind as such:

“Let’s say your dream is like a Martin Scorsese movie,” he says. “A blind person’s dream will be more like a Monet painting. It will have people in it and it will have places in it, but it’s going to be abstract or impressionistic — less moored to a faithful, or photographic replication of what a visual person might see.”

Among the few studies about blind dreams is a 2014 paper published in Sleep Medicine by researchers at the Danish Centre for Sleep Medicine at Glostrup Hospital and BrainLab at the University of Copenhagen. The team recruited:

  • 11 people who were born blind;
  • 14 who had become blind later in life;
  • 25 normally-sighted people;

Each morning, as soon as they woke up for four weeks straight, the participants had to complete a questionnaire about the content of their dreams. The blind participants used text-to-speech software. Some of the questions queried sensory impressions (Did you see anything? If so, was it in color? Did you taste? Smell? Feel pain?), some delved into the emotional nature of the dreams (Were you angry? Sad? Afraid?), while other questions were meant to assess the thematic content (Did you interact with someone? Did you fail at something? Was it realistic, or bizarre?).

All non-blind participants reported a visual experience in at least one dream. However, none of the participants who were blind from birth reported any visual. Those whose blindness occurred later in life reported seeing in dreams, but the longer they had lived without sight, the fewer visuals they could experience.

Just because they can’t see in their dreams, it doesn’t mean the blind’s dreams are less rich in sensory information and emotions. About 18 percent of both congenital and later-onset blind participants reported tasting in dreams, compared to only 7 percent of controls. Smelling in dreams was a common occurrence for 30 percent of the blind participants, compared to 15 percent of controls. Also, 70 percent of the blind reported touch sensations in at least one dream, compared to 45 percent of the control. Perhaps the most common dream stimulus is hearing, which 86 percent of the blind participants reported compared to 64 percent of controls. Those who were congenitally blind reported even more drastic differences: 26 percent tasted, 40 percent smelled, 67 percent touched and 93 percent heard in at least one dream.

The blind have four times more nightmares than sighted people

Despite the sensual differences, the emotional experiences were very similar between the blind and non-blind. All groups reported about the same number of social interactions, successes, and failures in their dreams. There was about the same distribution of reported emotions. One woman often had nightmares about being run over by a car or getting into embarrassing social situations such as spilling a cup of coffee.

One notable exception stood out, however — the congenitally blind experienced nightmares 25 percent of the time, compared to only 7 percent of the later-onset blind group and 6 percent of controls. The results held even after the researchers controlled for sleep quality, which is poorer among the blind.

The Danish researchers don’t know for sure why this happens, but they have some hunches based on the theory of why nightmares happen in the first place.

“The study confirms an already existing hypothesis that people’s nightmares are associated with emotions they experience while awake. And blind people apparently experience more threatening or dangerous situations during the day than people with normal sight,” says study lead author Amani Meaidi, a research assistant at the Danish Centre for Sleep Medicine at Glostrup Hospital and BrainLab at the University of Copenhagen.

“According to these theories, nightmares can be seen as threat simulations, as a mentally harmless way by which the human mind can adapt to the threats of life,” the researchers write. “The nightmare gives an individual an opportunity to rehearse the threat perception and the avoidance of coping with the threat.”

Indeed, the most common nightmares the blind reported involve things like getting lost, being hit by a car, falling into manholes, or losing their guide dog — all very threatening situations in real life, and seeing how the blind are more vulnerable to them, their minds might be jacking up simulations for their own good.

Interestingly, it came as a surprise for the blind participants that they have more nightmares than those who can see.

“This isn’t something that causes problems for them in their everyday lives, for which reason several of them are surprised to hear the result,” says Maeidi

The bottom line is that most blind people can not see in their dreams despite the fact that it could have been comforting for many. Their dreams are still rich with sensual and emotional experience — not that different from those with sight, by all accounts.

Half the world will need glasses by 2050

Nearly half the world’s population, close to some 5 billion people, will develop myopia by 2050 according to a study recently published in the journal Ophthalmology. The paper also estimates that one-fifth of these people will have a significantly increased risk of becoming permanently blind from the condition if recent trends continue.

"Can you come a bit closer? I can't see you yet." Image via flikr @ Paul Stevenson.

“Can you come a bit closer? I can’t see you yet.”
Image via flikr @ Paul Stevenson.

The number of myopia cases is rapidly rising across the globe, making it one of the most common sight-impairment conditions of the modern world. This increase is attributed to “environmental factors (nurture), principally lifestyle changes resulting from a combination of decreased time outdoors and increased near work activities, among other factors,” according to a new study from Brien Holden Vision Institute, University of New South Wales Australia and Singapore Eye Research Institute.

Even worse, if the current trends continue, the paper warns that we’ll see a seven-fold increase in cases from 2000 to 2050. Myopia will also become one of the leading causes of permanent blindness by that date.

But why? Short-sightedness has always been around but never at the scale this study predicts.

It’s mostly due to the way we use our eyes today. For most purposes, our eyes are good at spotting far away objects, but they have been mostly relegated to short distance duty nowadays. Our daily activities involve a lot of “near work activities,” such as using a computer, scrolling on a smartphone or reading. Constantly keeping focus on a short distance leaves the crystalline lens in our eyes set on them, in a sense, and unable to effectively focus on objects farther away.

The authors point out that this has become a major public health issue, one that we’ll have to tackle — preferably sooner rather than later. They suggest that planning for comprehensive eye care services is needed to manage the rapid increase in high myopes (a five-fold increase from 2000), along with the development of treatments to control the progression of myopia and prevent people from becoming highly myopic.

“We also need to ensure our children receive a regular eye examination from an optometrist or ophthalmologist, preferably each year, so that preventative strategies can be employed if they are at risk,” said co-author Professor Kovin Naidoo, CEO of Brien Holden Vision Institute. “These strategies may include increased time outdoors and reduced time spent on near based activities including electronic devices that require constant focussing up close.

“Furthermore there are other options such as specially designed spectacle lenses and contact lenses or drug interventions but increased investment in research is needed to improve the efficacy and access of such interventions.”

Yea so….I’d say investing in the glasses industry will probably net you a nice return in a few years.

But there is an upside to this paper. Don’t want myopia? Drop your laptop and spend some time in the park. Put your smartphone in your pocket and look at the city as you walk to work or school. You might even end up having fun.

The full paper, titled “Global Prevalence of Myopia and High Myopia and Temporal Trends from 2000 through 2050” is available online in the journal Ophthalmology here.


Ray Flynn, 80

Blind pensioner can see again following bionic eye implant

An 80-year-old man suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the most common cause of sight loss in the world – can now see again after being fitted with a bionic eye. The technology was developed at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, and the implant marks the first trial for the Argus II system for AMD.

Ray Flynn, 80

Ray Flynn, 80

The pensioner from Audenshaw, Ray Flynn, underwent surgery to fit the Argus II in June. The implant was fitted in the retina, while a camera mounted on a pair of glasses sends wireless signals direct to the nerves which control sight. The signal is then decoded by the brain directly. Thanks to the Argus II and the dedication of the doctors from the Oxford Road hospital Flynn can now make out the outlines of people and objects.

“Mr Flynn’s progress is truly remarkable. He is seeing the outline of people and objects very effectively,” says Paulo Stanga, consultant ophthalmologist and vitreoretinal surgeon at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.

“As far as I am concerned, the first results of the trial are a total success, and I look forward to treating more dry AMD patients with the Argus II as part of this trial. We are currently recruiting four more patients to the trial in Manchester.”

Ray Flynn and Professor Paulo Stanga

Ray Flynn and Professor Paulo Stanga

Previously, the Argus system was also tested on patients left blind by a different eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. One of the patients using the technology could read for the first time in his adult life. Another was able to see fireworks for the first time in 40 years.

The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to "see" objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

Star Trek walking cane lends virtual touch to the blind

Visual impairment is among the top 10 causes of disability in the US and it’s one of the fastest growing.  While there are currently six million Americans aged 40 or over suffering from visual impairment, either low vision or fullon blindness, studies estimate this figure to double by 2040 as a result of rising diabetes cases and other chronic diseases that also affect vision, as well as aging population. Cybernetic vision – electronic vision implants connected to the brain – is but one of the myriad of high tech solution being discussed at the moment which aims not only to help the visual impaired navigate their surroundings, but regain sight to almost full degree. Until this happens, however, we might be better off discussing more practical solutions.

Virtual touch

The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to "see" objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to “see” objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

The walking cane has helped the blind navigate obstacles for thousands of years, and its design has remained largely unchanged since – a sophisticated stick. What looks like a combination between a TV remote and a Star Trek tricorder, the Enactive Torch aims to help all the aging baby boomers, injured veterans, diabetics and white-cane-wielding pedestrians navigate their surroundings using 21st century tech.

[ALSO READ] Device turns images into sound, allowing the blind to ‘see’

The device developed at University of Cincinnati is fitted with infrared sensors that estimate how far and how large obstacles are, conveying this information via vibrations to an attached wristband. The vibrations are subtle or more intense depending how close the obstacles are. This allows the user to make decisions on how to move about using a virtual touch as a guide.

“Results of this experiment point in the direction of different kinds of tools or sensory augmentation devices that could help people who have visual impairment or other sorts of perceptual deficiencies. This could start a research program that could help people like that,” says Luis Favela, a graduate student in philosophy and psychology.

UC's Luis Favela explains a task to Mary Jean Amon during a demonstration of Favela's research experiment in the Perceptual-Motor Dynamics Lab.

UC’s Luis Favela explains a task to Mary Jean Amon during a demonstration of Favela’s research experiment in the Perceptual-Motor Dynamics Lab.

For their experiment, 27 undergraduate students with normal or corrected-vision were asked to judge how well they would be able to pass through an opening just a few feet in front of them without shifting their normal posture. This assessment was made in three distinct situations: only using their vision, using a cane while blindfolded and using Enactive Torch when blindfolded. The whole idea was to see how judgments differ when these are made under the influence of vision or the Enactive Torch. Most surprisingly, all three judgements were equally accurate.

“When you compare the participants’ judgments with vision, cane and Enactive Torch, there was not a significant difference, meaning that they made the same judgments,” Favela says. “The three modalities are functionally equivalent. People can carry out actions just about to the same degree whether they’re using their vision or their sense of touch. I was really surprised.”

So, does this mean that the Enactive Torch is useless? Judging from these results alone would give the device far too less credit than it deserves. The findings suggest that wielding a cane blindfolded will help you navigate your surroundings just as well as you would using a pair of healthy eyes. False. Try doing that on stairs, traffic, unfamiliar places with varied obstacles. Some more thorough examinations and experiments would have been much more helpful.

“If the future version of the Enactive Torch is smaller and more compact, kids who use it wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, they might feel like they blend in more,” he says, noting people can quickly adapt to using the torch. “That bodes well, say, for someone in the Marines who was injured by a roadside bomb. They could be devastated. But hope’s not lost. They will learn how to navigate the world pretty quickly.”

The results were presented at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual convention, held Aug. 7-10 in Washington, D.C.


This is not SciFi: software update slated for bionic eye will grant higher resolution and colour vision

The Argus II is the first bionic eye implant, designed to grant the blind vision, that has been approved by the FDA in the US. The wearer of such an implant is now capable of distinguishing objects and live an almost independent life, which is absolutely remarkable by itself, however its performance is light years away from the natural counterpart. Technology has always been on an upward trend and it’s natural to expect the implant will get better in coming years, but think of it for a moment. It’s not like you’re buying a new hard-drive for your PC. In analogy, you’d have to go through surgery again, have your implant taken out, and then have a new one implanted back – the hassles are too great.

Zoom in on the future

bi0niceyeThing is, hardware’s not the only thing you can upgrade to increase performance, a lot of times a software update can do wonders and the bionic eye is no different. Recently, Second Sight – the company that developed Argus II – announced they’ll soon be rolling out a firmware update which will allow the users to have better resolution, focus, and image zooming. A planed second update will even allow for colour recognition, even though the initial product offers only black and white imaging.

The are many causes that can lead to blindness – cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration or various other diseases. Going to the root of the problem, what happens is the diseased eye is incapable of converting the light that hits the rods and cones of the retina  into electrical signals which, in a healthy eye, are then transmitted down your optic nerve to your brain which process them and retrieves images, granting sight.

Granting sight

Argus II is essentially a retinal prosthesis, and it works by having 60 electrodes implanted into the macula of the patient — the central region of the retina that provides central and high-resolution vision. Since the eye can’t receive light anymore or the essential input data it needs to convert into electrical signals, the actual “eyes” are replaced by a pair of spectacles with a mounted camera that records whatever the wearer is pointing towards. The camera then converts the captured images into electrical signals and sends them to a tiny antenna which is connected to the electrodes implanted in the retina. The signal picked up by the electrodes stimulates them in such a way that they then produce an electrical signal that can read and understood by the brain. Finally, out of pitch black, finally enters light.

It’s rough pixel world, however. Since the implant only has 60 electrodes (6×10), you can imagine the resolution is extremely small, but it’s a lot better than being completely blind, and for some this means they now have the chance of living  a normal life or at least take care of themselves.

“There’s a new firmware out for my bionic eye. Cool!”

Even so, once the update called  Acuboost rolls in, Argus II users will be able to improve their implants’ performance significantly. If Second Sight needed years and years of back and forth discussions with the FDA for their product to become the first ever implantable bionic eye to be approved, apparently they require no such approval for firmware updates. Something that will most likely change soon enough as policies will become just as demanding for software, as well as hardware.

The ‘see in colour’ update is the most anticipated release, scheduled to come after Acuboost, and the most fascinating yet since technically the implant users don’t have any color vision capabilities as the these cells were destroyed by the disease. Instead, colour can be granted by ingeniously reading and correlating specific frequencies and delays in electrode stimulation with a colour.

There’s an European, more interesting, counterpart to the Argus II. In Germany, the Alpha IMS bionic eye has recently received European regulatory approval, and works much in the same way as the Argus II except in one major aspect: instead of having an auxiliary camera that feeds imaging signals, the Alpha IMS uses a self-contained bionic eye that grants vision by using light that actually enters the eye. More than that, instead of 60 electrodes the Alpha IMS boasts 1,500 electrodes, greatly enhancing resolution.  We reported on the retina implant in a previous ZME Science piece from February. Check out the presentation video for Alpha IMS below.

video game for the blind

Virtual game for the blind help them navigate their surroundings

It’s rather difficult to imagine a video game for the blind, seeing they can’t actually see, but what people should loose sight of is that the other four senses are still there, and they’re quite sharper. A group of researchers at the  Department of Ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard Medical School have developed a game whose environment is the exact replica of a real-life building in which the blind player must navigate it, retrieve certain objects and exit the premises. The game might be scaled to more buildings and environments and thus help the blind build a cognitive mind they can use to navigate in real-life and thus live a more autonomous life.

“For the blind, finding your way or navigating in a place that is unfamiliar presents a real challenge,” Dr. Merabet explains. “As people with sight, we can capture sensory information through our eyes about our surroundings. For the blind that is a real challenge… the blind will typically use auditory and tactile cues.”

For the game, called the Audio-based Environment Simulator (AbES), computer generated layouts of public buildings have been made, including that of the actual physical environment of the Carol Center for the Blind in Newton Massachusetts. Participants must find jewelry hidden through the rooms of the building and exit it before a monster catches them and steals their jewelry, only to hide them back in other rooms.

video game for the blind

Since it’s actually thrilling and pressing, the blind gamer is actually motivated to explore the surroundings. The interface with the virtual building is made using a keyboard and a pair of headphones that play auditory cues that help the blind wearers spatially orient through world around them.

Through this interaction, in time, the researchers claim an accurate mental layout of the mimicked building is made, allowing people to learn room layouts more naturally than if they were just following directions. To make it easier and more easily available to some of the 285 million blind people world-wide, the scientists are working on porting the game on other user interfaces, like a Wii Remote or joystick.

“It is conceptually difficult for a sighted person to understand ‘a video game for blind people.’ What JoVE allows us to do is break down layouts of the game and strategy, show how the auditory cues can be used and how we quantify performance going from the virtual game to the physical world,” Dr. Merabet.

Findings have been published in the journal Journal of Visualized Experiments.


Retina implant restores sight to the blind

In the culmination of 15 years worth of painstaking research work related to retina implants, scientists from Germany and Hungary have for the first time demonstrated that a light sensitive electronic chip, implanted under the retina, can restore useful vision in patients blind from hereditary retinal degeneration.

subretinal-implantAs part of the research, nine persons previously completely blind have had their vision partially restored. They can now identify objects in their surroundings, and have become independent allowing them to live a life closer to normal. One participant in particular showed extraordinary improvements, after he was able to discern 7 shades of grey, read the hands of a clock and combined the letters of the alphabet into words.

The  3mm x 3 mm implant has 1500 pixels or just as many independent microphotodiode-amplifier electrode elements. It is meant to be surgically implanted below the fovea (area of sharpest vision in the retina), and is powered  by subdermal coil behind the ear.

“So far, our approach using subretinal electronic implants is the only one that has successfully mediated images in a trial with freely moving blind persons by means of a light sensor array that moves with the eye,” the scientists said.

“All the other current approaches require an extraocular camera that does not link image capture to eye movements, which, therefore, does not allow the utilization of microsaccades for refreshing the perceived images.”

In people suffering from hereditary retinal degeneration, the photoreceptors in the retina progressively degenerate, often causing blindness in adult life. Unfortunately, there is no viable treatment that can prevent this from happening, however forefront research like this might offer them a chance to a normal life.

Patients implanted with the device now posses a diamond-shaped visual field of 15 degrees diagonally across chip corners. This is a poor vision by all means, magnified by the fact that the visual field is so tiny, but when compared to the pitch black darkness the blind were thrown in, eyesight restoration, partial as it is, becomes nothing less than godsend. In the video below for instance, a study participant needed 2 minutes to recognize and read a succession of letters that formed the word “MIKA”. Remarkably, the patient read it correctly and signaled the researchers that they’ve spelled his name, Mikka, wrong – of course, this was made on purpose.

Findings were reported in the journal Proceeding of the Royal Society.

The work was made possible thanks to a long-standing collaborative effort between the University Eye Hospitals in Tübingen and Regensburg, the Institute for Microelectronics in Stuttgart (IMS), the Natural and Medical Sciences Institute (NMI) in Reutlingen as well as the Retina Implant AG and Multi Channel Systems (MCS).

Only the specific targeted 60-micron area of the retina in AAQ-treated blind mice fires when stimulated by flashes of violet light (credit: A. Polosukhina et al./Neuron)

Chemical lets blind mice see instantly – no surgery, chips or genetic alteration

Remarkably, researchers University of California, Berkeley  have discovered that a chemical called AAQ can temporarily restore the vision in blind mice. The find might help people suffering from inherited genetic blindness or age-related macular degeneration, and bring back light into their world.

The process isn’t quite as easy as applying eye drops, but it’s a whole lot less intrusive than surgery, bio-chips or optogenics, which make the patient susceptible to side effects or various other complications. Here’s how it works.

Only the specific targeted 60-micron area of the retina in AAQ-treated blind mice fires when stimulated by flashes of violet light (credit: A. Polosukhina et al./Neuron)

Only the specific targeted 60-micron area of the retina in AAQ-treated blind mice fires when stimulated by flashes of violet light (credit: A. Polosukhina et al./Neuron)

Both retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is the most common inherited form of blindness, and age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of acquired blindness in the developed world, the eye’s photoreceptors become dysfunctional because the light sensitive cells in the retina — the rods and cones — die.

The AAQ (acrylamide-azobenzene-quaternary ammonium) chemical works its magic by making other cells in the eye, like the retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are inherently blind, act as photoreceptors, turning them light sensitive. When switched on by light, AAQ alters the flow of potassium ions through the channels and activates RGCs much the way rods and cones are activated by light.

In the paper, published in the journal Neuron, the scientists write that AAQ basically acts as  a “photoswitch” that binds to protein ion channels on the surface of retinal cells.

To test the chemical out, the researchers applied it on the retina of  blind mice, which had genetic mutations that made their rods and cones die, as well as inactivated other photopigments in the eye. When the AAQ was injected into their eyes, in very small amounts, the team of scientists lead by Richard Kramer, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, noticed that sight was restored. They could tell this was the case since the mice’s pupils contracted in bright light, and the mice showed light avoidance, a typical rodent behavior impossible without the animals being able to see some light.

“The photoswitch approach offers real hope to patients with retinal degeneration,” said co-author Dr. Russell Van Gelder, an ophthalmologist and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington, Seattle.. “We still need to show that these compounds are safe and will work in people the way they work in mice, but these results demonstrate that this class of compound restores light sensitivity to retinas blind from genetic disease.”

An alternative to curing blindness

The scientists involved in the study herald AAQ as a potential alternative to the current methods of restoring sight, deeming it safer because of its temporary nature.

“The advantage of this approach is that it is a simple chemical, which means that you can change the dosage, you can use it in combination with other therapies, or you can discontinue the therapy if you don’t like the results,” and perhaps with improved spectral or kinetic properties, Kramer said. ”

“A several month supply of AAQ could be packaged into an tiny device inserted into the eye cavity like those currently used for long-term steroid treatment of ocular inflammation,” the researchers explain in their Neuron paper.

This might just be an extraordinary advance in science’s long-lasting battle against blindness, and currently new versions of AAQ are being tested, which have already deemed better results. They activate neurons for days rather than hours using blue-green light of moderate intensity, and these photoswitches naturally deactivate in darkness, so that a second color of light is not needed to switch them off. “This is what we are really excited about,” he said.



Sensing technology destined for robots adapted to help the blind navigate

One of the most sophisticated parts of a robot is its navigation system, why requires precise sensing and processing of the information, if an anthropomorphic robot is to walk around a house safely or a rover trek through the rocky wastelands of Mars, for instance. Billions have been dedicated to this field, and naturally technological advances derived from research has been directed towards helping people with impairments as well.  A recent promising such device has been developed by scientists at the Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, in the form of a pair of glasses equipped with cameras and sensors like those used in robot exploration.

blind-robotThe system was first demoed at a MIT conference last month, and functions by producing a 3D map of the wearer’s environment and their position within it, after two cameras capture the surroundings and a processor analyzes the images. These are constantly updated and displayed in a simplified form on a handheld electronic Braille device. The surface of the Braille device is actually a sort of dynamic tactile map which can generate  almost 10 maps per second, with the help of the system’s collection of accelerometers and gyroscopes which keeps track of the user’s location and speed, combined with the 3-D imaging information generated by the cameras.

“Navigation for me means not only being able to move around by avoiding nearby obstacles, but also to understand how the space is socially organised – for example, where you are in relation to the pharmacy, library or intersection,” Edwige Pissaloux says.

According to the researchers, the Braille map updates fast enough for a visually-impaired wearer to pass through an area at walking speed, fact truly impressive. Hopefully these can be manufactured cheaply enough to be commercially viable in the near future.

Also, related to this device is the MIT Media Lab’s EyeRing. This remarkable device is designed to be worn by the visually impaired as a ring, which is equipped with a camera and headphones. The wearer needs only to point the ring towards a desired object and vocally command what kind of action the device needs to describe, after which the camera snaps a picture and wirelessly transmits it to a tethered smartphone which processes it. The wearer can find out the color of a shirt, what’s the price tag for a book or even how much a currency bill is worth. Check out the video presentation for the EyeRing below.




Algae gene therapy could cure blindness

Researchers have managed to restore light perception to mice through gene therapy, by inserting algae genes into the retina. The treatment has succeeded in restoring the ability to sense light and dark to blind mice, and clinical trials in humans could begin in as little as two years.

“The idea is to develop a treatment for blindness,” says Alan Horsager, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who leads the research. “We introduce a gene that encodes a light-sensitive protein, and we target the expression of that gene to a subset of retinal cells.”

It is estimated that over 15 million people worldwide suffer from one form or another of blindness, like the most common retinitis pigmentosa (RP) or age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Most affections relate to the photoreceptors in the retina, which transform light hitting the eye into electrical impulses, this way preventing the brain from receiving image information.

Scientists based their very creative gene therapy on the Channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), a photosensitive protein used by unicellular algae to help them move towards light, which they injected into the mice retina via a “domesticated” virus. The procedure was conducted on three groups of mice: one with normal vision, and two groups of mouse strains that naturally become blind with age in a similar way to people with RP and AMD. One of hte blind groups was subjected to gene therapy.

After dissection, treated mice reveled in their retinas that the  ChR2 protein was being indeed expressed by the bipolar cells. The biggest revealing data which poised researchers to believe their on the right track is their maze experiment in with blind and treated mice alike were put in the middle of a 6 corridor maze, with only one possible exit which was lighten. Scientist found that treated mice managed to find the exit on average 2.5 times faster than untreated blind mice.

“It’s a good paper, and it’s clear that they are heading towards a clinical trial with the information they are gathering,” says Pete Coffey of the department of ophthalmology at University College London. But he points out that although there is a statistical difference between the performance of the treated and untreated mice, that difference is small.

Even though this particular research, published in Molecular Therapy, might only render human patients to experience light/dark discrimination, it’s still some sort of progress, different from current non-commercial stem cell treatments, and in my opinion provides a definite step forward to curing what’s maybe one of the most tragic, yet common, affections of humanity.