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How a Vision Prosthetic Could Bypass the Visual System

Electrical stimulation of the visual cortex may one day give image perception to blind people.

Work presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans today suggests a way to create a completely new kind of visual prosthetic—one that restores vision by directly activating the brain.

In a poster session, researchers presented results showing how electrical stimulation of the visual cortex can evoke the sensation of simple flashes of light—including spatial information about those flashes.

While other researchers are trying to develop artificial retinas that feed visual signals into existing sensory pathways (see “A Retinal Prosthetic Powered by Light” and “Now I See You” for instance), the team behind the new work, from the Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, is exploring the possibility of bypassing those routes all together. This could be vital for those whose retinas are unable to receive retinal stimulation.

The researchers used electrodes to stimulate the brains of three patients who were already undergoing brian surgery to treat epilepsy. All three were able to detect bright spots of light, called phosphenes, when certain regions of their brains were stimulated. And, in seven out of eight trials, the patients were able to correctly see the orientation of a phosphene—in one of two orientations, depending on the stimulation they received. 

The work builds upon a study published by the same team in Nature Neuroscience this summer. In that study, the researchers defined which areas of the brain produce phosphene perception when patients’ brains were electrically stimulated.

press release related to the earlier work says that the researchers “plan to conduct a larger patient study and create multiple flashes of light at the same time. Twenty-seven or so simultaneous flashes might allow participants to see the outline of a letter.”

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