Sidestepping failing retinas by linking cameras straight to the visual cortex

Researchers at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University plan to use gene therapy techniques to goad neurons to grow photoreceptors of their own outside of the eye. (Pixabay)

By using camera-equipped eyeglasses and projecting images directly onto the nerves of the brain’s visual cortex, researchers are hoping to one day circumvent the worsening retinas of people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and its progressive blindness.

Currently being developed under the BRAIN Initiative of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the OBServ system includes glasses that not only film the scene in front of a person but also track their eye movement to see where they are focusing their gaze.

Though AMD is a leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 50, it does not result in complete loss of vision. Instead, damage near the middle of the retina can lead to distorted and blurred vision as well as difficulty discerning faces or objects in the center of their view.

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The visual information from the cameras will be wirelessly streamed to two neurotechnology devices implanted at the rear of the brain, placed on top of the visual cortex across both hemispheres.

The leap comes in translating that information into signals the brain can interpret. Researchers at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University plan to use gene therapy techniques to goad certain neurons connected the brain’s visual pathway to grow photoreceptors of their own outside of the eye. Those neurons can then be stimulated directly with light from the implant to build a low-resolution image.

“The OBServ technology will likely only provide a window of vision equal smaller than the size of an adult thumbnail when held at arm’s length,” said Stephen Macknik, a professor of ophthalmology, neurology, physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate. “And while that may seem small, it is a huge step forward for those with AMD that will allow them to regain much of the independence they lost when they lost their sight.”

In addition, the two implants will be designed to include ways to measure feedback and synaptic response from within the brain to calibrate its signals accordingly.

The basic research work being done by Macknik and Professor Susana Martinez-Conde was highlighted in a blog post by NIH Director Francis Collins, who described the system as something that once sounded “like the stuff of science fiction.”

Though clinical tests in humans are still years away, “the OBServ project is now actually conceivable thanks to decades of advances in the fields of neuroscience, vision, bioengineering, and bioinformatics research,” Collins wrote. “All this hard work has made the primary visual cortex, with its switchboard-like wiring system, among the brain’s best-understood regions.”

“This project provides hope that once other parts of the brain are fully mapped, it may be possible to design equally innovative systems to help make life easier for people with other disabilities and conditions,” he added.

Video produced by Jordi Chanovas, narrated by Stephen Macknik of SUNY Downstate and provided courtesy of NIH.

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