Several institutions have developed models for retinal implants–some companies, such as California-based Second Sight, have even started developing them commercially. But, while cochlear implants, for example, can impart fairly comprehensive hearing to deaf patients, the utility of the retinal implants available today is extremely limited. Plus, the surgical procedure required to implant the retinal devices is much more dangerous than the one for cochlear implants.
Yesterday, a collaborative research team led by engineers at MIT announced that they had developed an improved retinal implant model. So far, the device has only been tested in pigs, but the researchers expect to get FDA approval to test the implants in humans soon. Unlike some of the current models, which are physically attached to patients’ eyeballs, MIT’s retinal implant sits on the white of the eye, making it less invasive. Similar to Second Sight’s implant, the MIT device receives input from glasses that contain built-in cameras, and then stimulates the eye’s neurons electrically. The team has been working on the new model for more than ten years, says John Wyatt, the MIT engineer who led the group. The next challenge, says Wyatt, is creating a device that can translate moving images. “Nobody knows how to turn a moving scene into electrical data,” he admits. Without that knowledge, the type of vision the implants recreate is equivalent to “learning piano with boxing gloves on your hands,” sighs Wyatt.
[Images courtesy of John Wyatt, MIT]