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SALT LAKE CITY — Modern medicine appears capable of almost anything these days. From cochlear implants for the deaf to an advanced transportation device for paraplegics, doctors and scientists have made great strides in curing humanity’s most devastating ailments.
The next step could very well be sight for the blind — and a team of Australian researchers are paving the way.
Monash Vision Group, based out of Australia’s Monash University, are in the process of developing a “bionic eye” capable of directly wiring into a patient’s brain and producing digital imagery.
Users of the device will don a pair of glasses equipped with a small camera that serves as a mock retina. A tiny CPU converts images gathered by the camera into electronic signals that are wired back through to a microchip implanted in the patient’s brain.
The surgical procedure installs 650 miniscule electrodes into the visual cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to see.
"It will be implanted by highly skilled neurosurgeons and they incorporate a tiny microchip that's about 4x4 millimetres in size and that microchip then sends signals to hair-thin electrodes that penetrate into the visual cortex of the brain,” said team lead and general manager of the project Dr. Jeanette Pritchard. "When those electrodes are stimulated they produce sensations of light in the brain in the visual field of the recipient. They're known as phosphenes and they're almost like pixels on a TV screen. And for each electrode we'll get one flash of light or one phosphene."
When the device is fully functioning, the team expects patient to see low resolution black and white images. The technology is far from providing the blind with the ability to perform high-maintenance tasks such as driving a car, but it could allow them the freedom of walking without assistance, among other simple functions.
Monash Vision Group plans on testing the device on patients that have experienced full adult vision in the past, and lost their sight due to an accident or trauma of some kind. It is unclear what kind of effect the procedure will have on someone who has never experienced sight.
"It's important that for our first patient that they have had full adult vision so that we know that their brain can process these kinds of signals because it has done so previously," Dr. Pritchard said. "It will be a lot about how the patient can learn to interpret that information to the optimum level to get the most out of it."
The team hopes to start clinical trials next year.
Alex Larrabee is the former General Manager of KWCR-FM, a graduate of Weber State University, and a producer/writer for www.gametaffy.com. You can email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @BaerTaffy for all your nerd needs.