Scientists and researchers are currently working on new technology to treat blindness, which can stimulate the optic nerve. The stimulation of the nerve might be able to aid people who are blind.
Approximately 39 million people around the world are blind. Blindness can happen for many reasons, such as genetics, glaucoma, strokes, infections, or even trauma.
Researchers from EPFL Switzerland and in Italy are currently trying to develop new technology to treat blindness. It that will bypass the eye itself and reach the optic nerve to help send images to the brain. This stimulation is done by using electrodes that are ‘intraneural’ and called OpticSeline. This method was successful when tested on rabbits.
New technology to treat blindness
Silvestro Micera, Professor of Bioelectronics at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna is one of the head researchers. He says that this ‘intraneural stimulation’ can be a very viable solution to restore sensory and motor function for the blind.
How this kind of stimulation would work is that the sensation of light is reproduced in the form of white patterns without seeing the light directly. This process stimulates the optic nerve.
In the past, the existence of retinal implants has not been a very effective solution for the blind. Only a few hundred people are able to avail this opportunity for clinical reasons. Furthermore, brain implants also exist, but they are riskier and can have more complications. Previous technologies of this sort that were developed in the 90s did not have favorable results. The electrodes used then were called ‘cuff electrodes’ and were too unstable to put placed on the optic nerve. Furthermore, it was not able to decode messages because of this instability.
This new method of stimulation is available to everyone and has no serious risks. Intraneural electrodes may be the solution that can help blind people access rich visual information. These devices pierce the nerve, hence have no risk of moving or causing any damage to the nerve of surroundings.
Silvestro Micera and a team of researchers developed OpticSeline, which is an electrode array with 12 electrodes. The team delivered an electric current to the optic nerve to stimulate specific nerve fibers. Brain activity in the visual cortex must be measured during to collect data. Then, using this data, an algorithm developed to decode all the signals being received through the electrode on the optic nerve. Every electrode decodes signals differently, showing that the intraneural stimulation on the optic nerve is selective with information.
This technology and the future
While this technology to aid the blind has come far, there is still a significant amount that needs to be developed and studied. For now, what’s known is that intraneural stimulations can help blind people perceive visual images and information.
Future patients and trials will help to fine-tune this technology and procedure. The technology, however, can now move onto human trials, after being tried on rabbits.
This technology could include up to 48 to 60 electrodes. While this amount is not sufficient to restore healthy eyesight, it still can help with providing day to day visual images for those who are suffering from blindness.