Scientists enable a blind woman to see simple shapes

A team of scientists from the University Miguel Hernndez in Spain, the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience (Netherlands), and the John A. Moran Eye Centre at the University of Utah (USA), have published new research that shows how they created artificial vision for blind women using a brain implant.
Eduardo Fernndez (MD, PhD) from the University Miguel Hernndez describes how an array of electrodes created a simple form of vision in a blind volunteer aged 58. The experiment was conducted in the laboratory of Elche, Spain by the team. Scientists are now able to make a prosthesis for the visual brain that will allow blind people to live independently.


To stimulate and record the neurons near the electrodes, a neurosurgeon placed a 100-needle microelectrode array into the visual cortex. The woman wore glasses equipped with a miniature camera. Special software encoded the visual data and sent it to the electrodes in her brain. To create an image, the array stimulated surrounding neurons with white light points called 'phosphenes'.

The blind woman, who was a former science teacher, had been blind for 16 years. The surgery was successful and she did not experience any complications. Researchers also found that the implant did no harm to brain function. The implant enabled her to recognize simple letters, lines and shapes evoked by different stimulation patterns. Researchers created a videogame with an actor from The Simpsons to help her practice with the prosthesis. She is also coauthor of the article due to her involvement and insights.

Professor Eduardo Fernndez stated that these results were "very exciting" because they show safety and efficacy. They could also help scientists realize a long-held goal, which is to transfer information directly from the outside world to the visual cortex of the blind, thus restoring some basic sight. Fernndez also stated that although these preliminary results are encouraging, there are many important questions that still need to be answered before cortical vision prosthesis can be considered viable clinical therapy.

Professor P. Roelfsema was a coauthor of the study. He said, "This new study provides proof–of-principle" and that it demonstrates that previous monkey experiments can be applied to humans. "This research is expected to be a landmark in the development of new technologies that can transform the treatment for blindness."

Professor R. A. Normann was also a coauthor of the study. He stated that "one goal of this research" is to improve mobility for blind people. It could help them identify people, doors, and cars. It could improve independence and safety. We are working towards that goal.

The researchers hope that the next set will be performed with a more advanced image encoder system capable of stimulating more electrodes simultaneously, and eliciting more complex visual images.