A revolutionary cortical vision device, developed by Monash University researchers that could one day help restore vision to the blind, is being prepared for world-first human clinical trials in Melbourne, Australia.
It is meant for clinically blind individuals with damaged optic nerves which prevent signals from being transmitted from the retina to the “vision center” of the brain.
Through Monash University’s Cortical Frontiers project, researchers have developed miniaturized, wireless electronic implants that sit on the surface of the brain and have the capacity to restore vision. Called the Gennaris bionic vision system, it can bypass this damage – making it possible to treat many conditions that currently have treatment limitations. Gennaris is the brainchild of the Monash Vision Group (MVG).
How does it work?
The system comprises custom-designed headgear with a camera and wireless transmitter, a vision processor unit and software, and a set of 9x9mm tiles that are implanted into the brain.
The scene captured by the video camera in the headgear is sent to the vision processor — similar in size to a smartphone — where it is processed to extract the most useful information.
The processed data is then transmitted wirelessly to complex circuitry within each implanted tile; this converts the data into a pattern of electrical pulses, which stimulates the brain via hair-thin microelectrodes.
Why it matters?
Restoring vision to the clinically blind matters, big time!
The project has been more than 10 years in the making and has the potential to stimulate growth in Australian manufacturing of brain implant systems. With additional funding, this life-changing technology will be made in Melbourne for distribution globally.
The human trial launch comes on the back of a recent successful trial on sheep, with findings published in the Journal of Neural Engineering in July. The work represents one of the first long-term tests of a fully implantable cortical vision prosthesis in the world.
On the record
“Cortical vision prostheses aim to restore visual perception to those who have lost vision by delivering electrical stimulation to the visual cortex – the region of the brain that receives, integrates and processes visual information,” said Professor Lowery, also from the University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering. “Our design creates a visual pattern from combinations of up to 172 spots of light (phosphenes) which provides information for the individual to navigate indoor and outdoor environments, and recognize the presence of people and objects around them.”
According to the World Health Organization data from 2010, globally the number of people of all ages visually impaired is estimated to be 285 million — of whom 39 million are blind. People 50 years and older are 82% of all blind.
So, obviously, a device like the one Monash University researchers are developing has the potential to help a lot of people lead much better lives.