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Artificial Eye System Helps Blind See

September 28 2009 | by

An experiment is helping the blind see images they’ve never seen before. The three-year research project involves surgically implanted electrodes, a camera worn on the bridge of the nose and a video processor, according to the New York Times.

Scientists involved in the project, the artificial retina, say they have plans to develop the technology to allow people to read, write and recognize faces. There are currently close to 40 participants in the project, which includes patients from the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

Advances in technology, genetics, brain science and biology are making a goal that long seemed out of reach — restoring sight — more feasible. More than 3.3 million Americans 40 and over, or about one in 28, are blind or have vision so poor that even with glasses, medicine or surgery, everyday tasks are difficult, according to the National Eye Institute, a federal agency. That number is expected to double in the next 30 years.

The approaches to curing blindness include gene therapy, which has produced improved vision in people who are blind from one rare congenital disease. Stem cell research is considered promising, although far from producing results, and other studies involve a light-responding protein and retinal transplants.

Other techniques focus on delaying blindness, including one involving a capsule implanted in the eye to release proteins that slow the decay of light-responding cells. And with BrainPort, a camera worn by a blind person captures images and transmits signals to electrodes slipped onto the tongue, causing tingling sensations that a person can learn to decipher as the location and movement of objects.

With the artificial retina, a sheet of electrodes is implanted in the eye. The person wears glasses with a tiny camera, which captures images that the belt-pack video processor translates into patterns of light and dark. The video processor directs each electrode to transmit signals representing an object’s contours, brightness and contrast, which pulse along optic neurons into the brain.

Second Sight, which produces the device, is seeking federal approval to market the 60-electrode version, which could cost up to $100,000 and might be coverd by insurance. Also planned are 200- and 1,000-electrode versions; the higher number might provide enough resolution for reading.

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