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Scientists developing technology to provide visual help to the blind

Scientists developing technology to provide visual help to the blind


Scientists from EPFL in Switzerland and Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy are developing technology for the blind that bypasses the eyeball entirely and sends messages to the brain. They do this by stimulating the optic nerve with a new type of intraneural electrode called OpticSELINE. Successfully tested in rabbits, they report their results in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

We believe that intraneural stimulation can be a valuable solution for several neuroprosthetic devices for sensory and motor function restoration. The translational potentials of this approach are indeed extremely promising," explains Silvestro Micera, EPFL's Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Translational Neuroengineering, and Professor of Bioelectronics at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, who continues to innovate in hand prosthetics for amputees using intraneural electrodes.

Blindness affects an estimated 39 million people in the world. Many factors can induce blindness, like genetics, retinal detachment, trauma, stroke in the visual cortex, glaucoma, cataract, inflammation or infection. Some blindness is temporary and can be treated medically. How do you help someone who is permanently blind?

The idea is to produce phosphenes, the sensation of seeing light in the form of white patterns, without seeing light directly. Retinal implants, a prosthetic device for helping the blind, suffer from exclusion criteria. For example, ½ million people worldwide are blind due to Retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder, but only a few hundred patients qualify for retinal implants for clinical reasons. A brain implant that stimulates the visual cortex directly is another strategy albeit risky. A priori, the new intraneural solution minimizes exclusion criteria since the optic nerve and the pathway to the brain are often intact.

Previous attempts to stimulate the optic nerve in the 1990s provided inconclusive results. EPFL's Medtronic Chair in Neuroengineering Diego Ghezzi explains, "Back then, they used cuff nerve electrodes. The problem is that these electrodes are rigid and they move around, so the electrical stimulation of the nerve fibers becomes unstable. The patients had a difficult time interpreting the stimulation, because they kept on seeing something different. Moreover, they probably have limited selectivity because they recruited superficial fibers."

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