By Robert Bazell, NBC News chief science correspondent
On Tuesday night we'll report on a research project that is literally allowing blind people to see again. Even though the project has been in progress for two decades, supported by the Department of Energy--first at Johns Hopkins now at the University of Southern California--the results have been limited. But given the enormous challenges, they are still impressive.
People who were totally blind could at first perceive dots of light that allowed them to avoid bumping into objects. Now, as the system is progressing, they can begin to make out the outlines of faces and other large objects.
The system works by taking the signal from a tiny camera on a pair of sunglasses, which then runs through wires that are implanted on the surface of the retina. These electrodes stimulate the retinal cells to send signals to the brain that are perceived as light.
You can read about the project in detail including diagrams of how it works here: http://www.doheny.org/research/pdfs/arnvol1no1.pdf
As Dr. Mark Humayan, the project leader, explained to me, the challenges involve both software and hardware. Even though we often use metaphors of physical objects like video cameras and computers to try to understand how body parts like eyes and brains work, the "software" code is very different for our body than it is for electronics. Matching the codes has taken almost two decades.
The hardware problem is that electronics are dry, while our bodies are moist and salty. Getting the electric leads to work in the eye is "like throwing a cell phone in the ocean," according to Humayan.
For now, the patient must turn so that the camera faces whatever he or she is trying to see. But Armand R. Tanguay, Jr., an electronics engineer, has designed a tiny video camera that will literally fit into the front lens of the eye, allowing the person to just move their eyes to see.
Currently the project treats only people with the blinding condition retinitis pigmentosa. In the future, the researchers plan to move on to other conditions, including macular degeneration. The waiting list for those wishing to become research subjects is long, but anyone interested should call: (818) 833-5000.
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