Medical Devices and Healthcare IT

Retinal Implant Breakthrough Said to Restore Sight to the Blind

04 December 2013

Researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Tübingen in Germany say they have developed an electronic system that can restore sight to the blind. The system, which uses electrical stimulation methods, could enable retinal implants to produce clearer images.

A normal retinal implant chip—in use today—does not bring images completely in focus for the patient—it simply helps people that are completely blind see light and dark, shapes and movement. The technology developed by Wolfgang Fink, an engineering professor at the University of Arizona, and Erich Schmid, professor emeritus at the University of Tübingen, helps to refine the existing retinal implants.

"We can enhance the visual experience of the implant carrier," Fink said. In a nutshell, Fink's device provides a 60-pixel black and white view for users of the retinal implant.

The system is composed of four components: a built-in camera, a mobile phone, and two microprocessor chips. The camera transmits video to the mobile phone app; the smart phone sends the information to one of the microprocessors that it is implanted on the eye; and finally a signal from this microcontroller is sent to the second microprocessor that interacts with the damaged areas of retina.

A few research institutions worldwide are developing methods of retinal implants, devices and methods which stimulate surviving retinal cells in people who have suffered from diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The methodology developed by Fink and Schmid could entice more research universities and companies to accelerate the cure for blindness.

"Current technologies and methods are far behind what can be done," said Fink, who is working with Tech Launch Arizona to patent and license the new technology to retinal implant developers.

Fink presented the team's findings in San Diego during last month's 2013 IEEE International Conference on Neural Engineering, organized by the Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society. Two papers were presented by Fink's team: "Simultaneous vs. Sequential and Unipolar vs. Multipolar Stimulation in Retinal Prostheses" and "Electric Stimulation of Neurons and Neural Networks in Retinal Prostheses." In both papers, Fink demonstrated that "implants on the market today don't work" and he proposed methods to achieve higher resolution images so the patients can see in greater details.

Current retinal implants allow patients to distinguish white objects such as a book and a table on a black background in a darkened room, "but only if the patients are told in advance that they are to choose between a book and a table," Fink said. The level of improvements using his discoveries, according to Fink, will allow an implant patient to make out "a bird flying in the sky."

More detailed information about the project is available on the University of Arizona's website.

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