Optic nerve stimulation offers hope for visually impaired
Craig Adderley pexel.com

Geneva: Scientists are developing a technology for the visually-impaired people that bypasses the eyeball entirely and sends messages to the brain, paving the way for a new visual aid for daily living. Researchers from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy use a new type of intraneural electrode called OpticSELINE to stimulate the optic nerve. The technology, described in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, has been successfully tested in rabbits.

“We believe that intraneural stimulation can be a valuable solution for several neuroprosthetic devices for sensory and motor function restoration. The translational potentials of this approach are indeed extremely promising,” said Silvestro Micera, a professor at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna. Researchers noted that blindness affects an estimated 39 million people in the world.

Many factors can induce blindness, like genetics, retinal detachment, trauma, stroke in the visual cortex, glaucoma, cataract, inflammation or infection. Some blindness is temporary and can be treated medically, researchers said.

The idea is to produce phosphenes, the sensation of seeing light in the form of white patterns, without seeing light directly. Retinal implants, a prosthetic device for helping the blind, suffer from exclusion criteria. For example, half a million people worldwide are blind due to Retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder, but only a few hundred patients qualify for retinal implants for clinical reasons. A brain implant that stimulates the visual cortex directly is another strategy albeit risky.

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