Eyesight to the Blind

Mindful Living Short Takes: September/October 2007

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It sounds like one of 007's wacky gadgets: A pair of glasses equipped with a tiny camera beams images into the brain. In fact, it's a real device being tested to restore some vision to people who suffer from retinal diseases, a leading cause of eyesight loss.

According to ScienCentral.com (March 15, 2007), the device uses an ocular implant to essentially bypass damaged retinas, which can no longer translate light into the electrical impulses the brain interprets as visual images. Here's how it works: The camera sends images to a microprocessor (also on the glasses) that converts them into electrical impulses and wirelessly beams the impulses to the implant, which in turn sends them to the optic nerve--the highway to the brain.

An earlier version of the device, tested in 2002, helped patients perceive light and motion. Mark Humayun, the University of Southern California ophthalmology professor behind the project, hopes the newer version--which is more powerful and four times smaller, and takes 90 minutes of surgery instead of nearly seven hours to implant--will help patients see the outlines of obstacles like curbs and doorways.

But it probably won't restore a person's ability to recognize faces or to read. That's the ultimate goal, says Humayun, who hopes the current tests can lead the way to a higher-resolution device down the road. In the meantime, the team working on the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy-funded project is hoping the device being tested will pass Food and Drug Administration muster and make it to market in two to three years. --Hannah Lobel