Two researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have ‘cracked’ a mouse’s retina’s neural code and they believe that this information could be used to create a prosthetic device to restore sight to blind mice. The team have also done the same for a monkey retina — which is essentially identical to that of a human. In short, the researchers think that they can now design and create a bionic device that would allow the blind to see!
The breakthrough was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and signals a remarkable advance in restore vision to the blind. Currently, prosthetics only provide blind users with spots and edges of light to help them navigate, but this device would provide the code for the full restoration of vision. The code is so accurate that would allow facial features to be recognized.
Clearly taking her inspiration from Star Trek: The Next Generation, lead researcher, Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, a computational neuroscientist at Weill Cornell, envisions a day when the blind can choose to wear a visor which will take in light and use a computer chip to turn it into a code that the brain can translate into an image.
“It’s an exciting time. We can make blind mouse retinas see, and we’re moving as fast as we can to do the same in humans,” says Dr. Nirenberg, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and in the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell. “This is the first prosthetic that has the potential to provide normal or near-normal vision because it incorporates the code.”
Blindness is often caused by diseases of the retina that kill the photoreceptors and destroy the associated circuitry, however the retina’s output cells are often spared. Current prosthetics work by driving these surviving cells via electrodes implanted into a blind patient’s eye. They then stimulate the ganglion cells with current, but this only produces rough visual fields.
However, Dr. Nirenberg notes another critical factor: “Not only is it necessary to stimulate large numbers of cells, but they also have to be stimulated with the right code — the code the retina normally uses to communicate with the brain.”
Here’s hoping the mice tests go well, because this could dramatically change the lives of thousands of people worldwide.
Images: Paramount Pictures