Feb 2020 Interesting Engineering
What if blindness could be cured by an implant that bypasses the retina and goes straight into the brain? This is the system that Eduardo Fernandez, director of neuro-engineering at the University of Miguel Hernandez, has developed, according to MIT Technology Review. The innovative new technology was tested on Bernardeta Gómez, who suffers from toxic optic neuropathy and has been blind for 15 years. She was able to recognise lights, letters, shapes, people, and even to play a video game.
Fernandez's technology is new. Gómez is the first to test it. His approach is promising because it bypasses the eye and optical nerves. Previous research attempted to fix blindness by creating an artificial eye or retina, and it worked. However, there was one problem. The majority of blind people don't need an artificial eye since their damage lies with the nerve system connecting the retina to the back of the brain. This is where jacking straight into the brain becomes very useful.
Achieving this goal might seem far-fetched, but the underlying principles behind Fernandez's approach have been used in human-electronic implants for years. “Right now,” Fernandez said to MIT Technology Review, “we have many electric devices interacting with the human body. One of them is the pacemaker. And in the sensory system, we have the cochlear implant.”
Now, Fernandez hopes to test the system in more people. “Berna was our first patient, but over the next couple of years we will install implants in five more blind people,” said Fernandez. “We had done similar experiments in animals, but a cat or a monkey can’t explain what it’s seeing.”
The technology does come with complications. Surgery is required to install the system, which is always risky, and then one to remove it as it hasn't been approved for longer use. Still, for the vast majority of the visually impaired, the risks are worth the outcome.