A chip inside the eye that can help blind people see again is moving closer to reality as researchers at MIT work on a retinal implant that can bypass damaged cells and directly offer visual input to the brain.
Patients who receive the implant will wear a pair of glasses that has a tiny camera attached to it. The camera will send images to a microchip implanted in the eyeball that channels the input to the brain.
It won’t entirely restore normal vision, say the researchers, but it will offer just enough sight to help a blind person navigate a room.
“If they can recognize faces of people in a room, that brings them into the social environment as opposed to sitting there waiting for someone to talk to them,” says Shawn Kelly, a a researcher in MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics and a member of the project.
MIT’s latest quest should be of interest to people like Rob Spence, a Canadian filmmaker who is on a quest to put a tiny wireless video camera into his empty right eye socket. Spence is looking to capture the world around him and a retinal implant like that from MIT could actually help bring him closer to his quest.
Here’s how the implant works. The glasses that patients wear contains a coil that wirelessly transmits power to receiving coils surrounding the eyeball. The eyeball holds a microchip encased in a sealed titanium case to avoid damage from water seepage. The chip receives visual information and activates electrodes that in turn fire the nerve cells that carry visual input to the brain.
A research team, led by MIT professor of electrical engineering John Wyatt, plans to start testing the prototype in blind patients within the next three years.
With feedback, researchers can configure the algorithm implemented by the chip to produce useful vision. Ultimately, the goal is to produce a chip that can be implanted for at least 10 years.
It’s a risky and challenging procedure as researchers have to design an implant that won’t damage the eye. In the October issue of the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering journal, researchers have said they hope to attach the implant to the outside of the eye, and put the electrodes behind the retina.
EDITOR’S NOTE 9/24/2009: As several commenters have pointed out, similar research predates the MIT prototype described here. For example, UC Santa Cruz electrical engineering professor Wentai Liu first installed a retinal implant in 2002. Also in 2002, Wired reported on a brain implant designed by William Dobelle that promised to restore sight.