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Another Advance In Bionic Prosthetic Eyes

The technology is moving forward a little faster than expected.

We have discussed bionic eyes at length, but for the most part these have been dumbprosthetics — chips that wire themselves into the ganglion cells behind the retina, which are the interface between the retina and optic nerve. These chips receive optical stimuli (via a CMOS sensor, for example), which they transmit as electrical signals to the ganglion cells. These prosthetic eyes can produce a low-resolution grayscale field that the brain can then interpret — which is probably better than being completely blind — but they don’t actually restore sight.

The Cornell prosthetic eye however, developed by Sheila Nirenberg and Chethan Pandarinath, is a much closer analog to a real eye. Its construction and implementation is rather complex, so bear with me.

Comparison of various prosthetic eye/retina technologies

First, gene therapy is used to deliver special proteins to the patient’s damaged retina (i.e. caused by degenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy). By using optogenetics, these proteins have been modified so that they’re sensitive to light — they’re not quite rods and cones, but they’re along the same lines.

The next step is the clever/unique bit. For years now, Nirenberg has been working on decoding the signals sent by the retina to the brain. A year ago, she cracked this code. At the time, she had only cracked the code used by the mouse retina, but now she’s cracked the monkey code too — and a monkey’s retina is very similar to ours.

That’s not the breakthrough here, though: Nirenberg and Pandarinath have now taken the mouse retina code and developed a working prosthetic, completely restoring a mouse’s vision.

The prosthetic contains a camera pointed forward, a Texas Instruments OMAP 3530 SoC (system-on-a-chip), and a tiny DLP pico projector. The SoC converts the camera’s output into encoded data that the mouse’s brain can understand, and then the projector is used to beam that data to the optogenetic proteins that were earlier placed in the retina using gene therapy. The optogenetic proteins then transmit the encoded signal to the brain, via the ganglion cells and optic nerve. Voila: restored (grayscale) vision.

Prosthetic bionic eye, encoded vs. plain old optogenetic methods


Link To Study

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