Researchers at UCLA and Baylor Medical College have surgically implanted four blind patients with an innovative brain device that can help them perceive objects and movement. Aimed towards formerly sighted people, the device helps them tell the difference between light and dark. This can help them perceive objects and movement and complete chores such as sorting laundry or finding and retrieving objects from surfaces.
“This is the first time we’ve had a completely implantable device that people can use in their own homes without having to be plugged into an external device,” said Dr. Nader Pouratian, a neurosurgeon at UCLA Health and principal investigator of the five-year study.
“It helps them recognize, for example, where a doorway is, where the sidewalk begins or ends or where the crosswalk is. These are all extremely meaningful events that can help improve people’s quality of life.”
The device wirelessly converts images captured by a tiny video camera mounted on sunglasses into a series of electrical pulses. Then, the pulses stimulate a set of electrodes implanted on top of the brain’s visual cortex. It has been designated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a “Breakthrough Device.”
“This is an exciting time in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and I feel that within my lifetime we can restore functional sight to the blind,” study leader and neurosurgeon Dr. Daniel Yoshor said.
So far, six people have received the implant. They report that they are able to enjoy fireworks and blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
“Now I can do things that I couldn’t do before,” said Jason Esterhuizen, one of the recipients. “I can sort the laundry, find my way in lighted hallways without using a cane and cross the street more safely. It’s making my life much easier.”
“This device has the potential to restore useful vision to patients blinded by glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, cancer and trauma,” Pouratian said.
Right now, the device is only intended for those who were previously sighted. However, one day Dr. Pouratian hopes that he and his colleagues will be able to adapt the device to help those born blind or with low vision.