Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Device to Help the Blind

Amazingly, a new device has been developed for the blind and visually impaired that uses the brain to see—not the eyes. This device called BrainPort manufactured by Wicab Inc., located in Wisconsin helps to partially restore vision by using the nerves on the tongue to send signals from a camera system to the brain. The tongue appears to be ideal for sensing electrical currents as nerve fibers on the tongue are densely packaged and are close to the surface of the tongue.

The device works by having a small digital video camera located on a pair of sunglasses. Information is collected from the camera with the data going to a handheld device that has settings and a CPU. At this point, the digital signal is translated into gentle electrical stimulation patterns that go on the surface of the tongue to replace the function of the retina. Users describe it as pictures drawn on their tongue which feels like champagne bubbles to the user.

It is not completely understood as to where the information goes. It may go to the brain’s visual cortex or to a somatosensory cortex where perhaps the data from the tongue is interpreted. However, with training, users of the BrainPort may begin to interpret spatial information, perceive shape, size, location, and motion of objects in their environments.

Wicab is working with the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Eye Center to further test the device. Dr. Amy Nau, Director of Optometry and Low Vision Services at the Eye Center will continue to test the non-invasive device plus the Center is working on other artificial devices to help produce artificial sight. Dr. Nau is currently enrolling patients in evidence-based studies for BrainPort and users are able to take the device home for six weeks to use.