First-of-its-kind bionic vision system heads for human trials

Original article was published by Faisal Khan on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


The Gennaris bionic vision system consists of custom headgear with a built-in camera, a wireless transmitter, a vision processor and software, along with a set of square tiles fitted with hair-thin electrodes that are implanted in the brain — Image Credit: Monash University

NEURAL ENGINEERING

First-of-its-kind bionic vision system heads for human trials

More than a decade in the making, the innovative design restores vision lost due to damaged optic nerves

Scientists have been working on developing a safe and fully functioning bionic vision system for quite some time. And this is exactly the case with the current bionic vision research that I am going to talk about today. Earlier in the year, I wrote about how researchers have developed designs for data-enhanced vision and a bionic eye concept — both of which will not only help people who can’t see, in fact, enhance their vision capabilities with additional features.

Research into brain-controlled prosthetics has picked up pace in recent times, showing great promise in developing life-saving devices that can work in various capacities. Scientists at Monash University, Australia have taken a meaningful step towards human trials on their revolutionary cortical vision device, that could one day help restore vision to the blind.

Ten years in the making, Melbourne-based researchers have designed the Gennaris bionic vision system — miniaturized, wireless electronic implants that sit on the surface of the brain and have the capacity to restore vision. The device could well be the panacea for the clinically blind in the future. Clinical blindness is basically caused by the injured nerves blocking the transmission of key signals from the retina to the vision center in the brain.

“The study results indicate that long-term stimulation through wireless arrays can be achieved without induction of widespread tissue damage, nor visible behavioral issues or seizures resulting from the stimulation.”

~ Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Lead Author of the Study

The system carries out the functions of a healthy optic nerve by going around the damaged nerves. As per the specifications laid out in the announcement, the system comprises custom-designed headgear with a camera and wireless transmitter, a vision processor unit and software, and a set of 9×9mm tiles that are implanted into the brain.

The scene captured by the camera is passed along to the smartphone-sized vision processor. From there, the data is transmitted wirelessly to the complex circuitry in the implanted tiles. It is here that the data is converted into a pattern of electrical pulses, that ultimately stimulate the brain via hair-thin microelectrodes.

Earlier in July, the team published results of their trial study conducted on sheep. Spread across nine months, it involved thousands of hours of stimulation to the animal’s brains via ten electrode arrays — in what is being termed as the first long-term tests of a fully implantable cortical vision prosthesis in the world. The team concluded that in over 2,700 hours of stimulation performed, no adverse health effects were observed.

Researchers are now looking to move forward to human trials with a few subjects initially while increasing the sample size periodically. Regulatory approvals in this regard have been gained. Working under the auspices of the Monash Vision Group (MVG), the Australian government-funded plan is expected to receive further financial support to help cover the cost of clinical trials and the manufacturing of the bionic vision system eventually.

The final aim of the team is to produce a commercially viable product that would help restore vision in people whose condition is untreatable. Researchers are also hopeful that this innovation would lead to more medical applications like treating spinal cord injuries, epilepsy, depression, and a number of other conditions.

Although it might be a little way off in the future, this device can prove truly revolutionary for millions of people suffering from clinical blindness.

Complete Research was published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

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