Day after day technology is changing our lives, and in most cases, it is for good. The way it impacts us and our health is incredible. If you still think that there are impossible things, you may be wrong. For our technology world, there’s no such thing as “impossible”. Now the development of visual prostheses is on its way to giving an opportunity to all people who have a disabled vision, to look at the world the way we all do.
The structure of the human eye is really complex and it contains more than two million interacting parts. It’s a serious challenge restoring someone’s sight, but now, thanks to all tech advances and many scientists’ hard work, this task is not an impossible one anymore. The bionic eye probably sounds familiar to you because of all the sci-fi movies and TV shows out there which you know very well. Well, it is now a reality – human sight may be restored.
Serge Picaud, who is a director at Institut de la Vision, a leading research center on eye diseases in Paris, France, said:
‘Enabling a patient to see again is our dream. A dream that we believe can come true,’
At this point, Picaud is coordinating entrain vision, a network of experts from all key sciences which are related to visual restoration. Together with 15 early-stage researchers, they are working and giving their best for restoring patients’ vision.
Firstly, the idea of electrically stimulating the human visual system was described more than 200 years ago. However, the advances in neural engineering and micro-electronics have paved the way for more advanced cortically-based visual prosthetic devices. Picaud explained:
‘The idea is to use a type of electronic device to electrically stimulate the remaining nerve cells. So, after having lost part of the “circuit”, you replace it with an electronic device,’
Recently, one of the partners succeeded in implementing a microelectrode array, which was composed of 100 microneedles, into the visual cortex of a blind woman. Thanks to that, she was able to recognize some lines, shapes, and simple letters. Picaud said:
‘These results are very exciting because they demonstrate both the safety and efficacy of this technology and can help to achieve a long-held dream of many scientists: to transfer information from the outside world directly to the visual cortex of blind individuals, restoring a rudimentary form of sight. This work is likely to become a milestone for the development of new technologies that could help to transform the treatment of blindness. However, more studies are still needed.’
What actually is optogenetics?
It is a biological technique that uses light to control nerve cells or other cell types. This technique was developed about 21 years ago. Picaus shared a story from his professional experience, explaining that there is already one patient in France who can see using this. This patient was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, which affects more than two million people worldwide, and completely destroys their retinal photoreceptors. However, because of the research with Gensight Biologics, the patient’s sight has been partially restored.
There is one more technology that has been set by the researchers. It is based on virtual reality. Picaud commented:
‘In Paris, we have a setting like a movie theatre (Street lab) where we can test a patient’s vision. It could be, for example, a room full of obstacles. So, once the patient has a device implanted, we can test it using this platform. However, it’s not easy to validate a device in other centers outside of Paris, because the platform cannot be easily recreated elsewhere due to its size. This is where virtual reality steps in.’
Users can be allowed to experience the same conditions as those in the Paris theatre anywhere in the world by the virtual headset. Picaud added:
‘It can also help us understand what the most important parts of an image are for a patient so that they can recognise their friends or ways to move about a room.’
However, have we ever thought about what happens when a human being loses not only their sight but also their hearing?
For many people with different kinds of disabilities, the sense of touch is really important and it is the only way to interact with the world. Nasrine Olson, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Borås and also a coordinator of the SUITCEYES project noted:
‘Being informed and able to communicate is central to everything we do, but you cannot interact with your environment if you are unable to gain information about it or communicate with people and your surroundings. So, we focused on improving communication for people with deafblindness.’
A smart, tactile interface that extends the perception and spatial orientation turned out to be a result. It makes it possible for them. When it comes to technology, it was nominated for an Innovation Radar Prize. Olson also added:
“Being informed and able to communicate is central to everything we do, but you cannot interact with your environment if you are unable to gain information about it or communicate with people and your surroundings. So, we focused on improving communication for people with deafblindness. “
How does computer vision help capture the environment?
‘First, our “haptic intelligent personalized interface” also known as HIPI captures the environment using computer vision and sensor technologies. The camera, sensors, and computer vision algorithms collectively detect and recognize objects, scenes, and faces. An object can be “a chair” or “a cup”, a scene can be “a corridor” or “an office” or “a bathroom”. The system also detects faces and whether they are known to the user or not. The sensor technologies also observe the distance between things.”
In other words, if the user is looking for their cup of coffee, for example, the HIPI will observe that it is on a table three meters away, to the left of the user.
Also, in Olson’s words, the haptograms they created were actually a haptic pattern that carries a meaning, for example, “happy” to the user. It does this by using vibrotactile actuators, which are small electronic devices that vibrate. They can be placed on different parts of the body. Then, various prototypes have been developed with the aim of integrating technology into clothing. Olson said that this included a range of vests, as well as a dress to show how the technology can be worn while looking fashionable.
Technologies have their advantages and disadvantages and there is no doubt on that question. Do they actually have the power to change the future? Of course. But the most important is that technologies make the impossible possible. And when it comes to healthcare it makes it more powerful than ever.
The research in this article was funded by the EU.