While there has been a good deal of progress in designing ever more advanced visual prostheses, some of the more impressive existing devices try to take over the functionality of the eye by directly stimulating the optic nerve or even the visual cortex of the brain. While this is impressive in itself, researchers at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, New York, are now embarking on the development of a new visual prosthetic system that involves genetically engineering neural cells, a brain implant that has a camera and a video projector, and a host of other advanced technologies to give blind people the ability to see.
Described in the video below, the technology will require turning neurons within the visual pathway into photoreceptors, which can then be activated and constantly monitored to calibrate system performance. Since these photoreceptors will be designed to bioluminesce when firing, a feedback loop will allow the system to make sure that the proper signals are transmitted to and received by the neurons.
To guarantee that the user will see what is in the center of the visual field, eye trackers will be employed to help select which images to transmit to the brain.
The Optogenetic Brain System, as the technology is now being dubbed, is part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative organized by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Here’s a video that the director of the NIH, Dr. Francis S. Collins, has just profiled on his blog that describes in detail the workings of the new approach:
More from Dr. Francis Collins: The Amazing Brain: Making Up for Lost Vision