Around 39 million people in the world are thought to be completely blind and according to the World Health Organization, 90% of visually impaired people live in low and middle-income countries. Blindness can be caused by lots of different illnesses and injuries includingt diabetes, macular degeneration, severe eye injuries, cornea or retina infections, glaucoma, and lack of access to glasses or eye care.
In an extraordinary medical trial, six blind people have now had their vision partially restored thanks to Orion, a new device that feeds images from a camera directly into the brain. An Early Feasibility Study at UCLA Medical Center and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston is now taking place to make sure the technology is safe for larger trials. To test their device, the researchers asked completely blind participants in an early feasibility study to look at a black computer screen while using Orion. When a white square would randomly appear on the screen, the participants could correctly point to the square the majority of the time.
The device is geared to people who used to be able to see but lost their vision to injury or disease. When a person becomes blind — as opposed to being born that way — their brain’s visual cortex is typically undamaged. While it doesn’t provide normal sight, it enhances users’ ability to navigate the world by restoring their capacity to detect movement and distinguish light and dark.
Designated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a “Breakthrough Device,” the system wirelessly converts images captured by a tiny video camera mounted on sunglasses into a series of electrical pulses. The Orion device comprises two main parts: a brain implant and a pair of glasses.
The Orion device comprises two main parts: a brain implant and a pair of glasses. The brain implant consists of a small transmission coil that can receive data and power wirelessly. The brain implant is installed above the occipital lobe during surgery on the back of the patient’s head. This involves an overnight stay in hospital and a three to four week recovery period before the tech can be officially turned on.
The information from a camera mounted on the glasses is converted to pulses that stimulate a set of 60 electrodes implanted on top of the brain’s visual cortex, which perceives patterns of light and interprets them as visual clues.Together, they can deliver visual information directly to the wearer’s brain, removing the eyes from the equation entirely.
“This is the first time we’ve had a completely implantable device that people can use in their own homes without having to be plugged into an external device,” said Dr.Nader Pouratian, a neurosurgeon at UCLA Health and principal investigator of the five-year study. “It helps them recognize, for example, where a doorway is, where the sidewalk begins or ends or where the crosswalk is. These are all extremely meaningful events that can help improve people’s quality of life.”
“If you can imagine every spot in the visual field in the visual world, there’s a corresponding part of the brain that represents that area, that spatial location,” researcher Daniel Yoshor explained in a video on the tech. “And we know that if we stimulate someone’s brain… in a specific spot, we will produce a perception of a spot of light corresponding to that map in the visual world.”
Yoshor believes that the white square may be just the start of restoring vision to blind patients. “Theoretically, if we had hundreds of thousands of electrodes in the brain we could produce a rich visual image,” he said in a press release. “Think of a painting that uses pointillism, where thousands of tiny spots come together to create a full image. We could potentially do the same by stimulating thousands of spots on the occipital part of the brain.”