The life-changing potential of biotechnology has been illustrated in a stunning way with a new brain implant that allows the blind to visualize letters without using their eyes.
For many years now, researchers have been steadily working towards a “visual prosthetic,” a device that would “skip” the eyes and deliver a camera feed straight to the visual processing centers of the brain. If that sounds like science fiction to you, you’re not alone. This has long been considered a “holy grail” of biotechnology that would never come to fruition within our lifetime.
However, we’ve now taken one giant step towards making this a reality with new developments made by scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Using implanted electrons, these scientists were able to “trace” the outline of letters directly onto the brains of patients. According to reports from the patients themselves, it’s like seeing a glowing pattern made up of dots or lines… But it all happens inside your head.
Although visual aids such as these have been created in the past, researchers have never attempted to “trace” outlines of shapes in this manner before. Instead, researchers had previously attempted to assemble complete images using “pixels” made of electrons within the brain. It seems as though the movement of the image is the key difference here, and it means that the blind and visually impaired are better able to identify the patterns and letters being implanted into their brains.
The breakthrough came when these scientists started to think about existing ways in which we communicate images to the blind. It’s a method that we’ve been using for thousands of years – we trace the shape of a letter on the palm of a blind person’s hand. For all intents and purposes, these scientists are doing the exact same thing with their new technology. The only difference is that they’re tracing the pattern on someone’s brain by stimulating neurons rather than on their outstretched palm.
While this is an exciting new development in the field of biotechnology, these successful scientists are quick to point out that there’s a long road ahead when it comes to refining their methods. Since the visual cortex alone contains half a billion neurons, much more research is required in order to stimulate this part of the brain accurately. So far, the researchers have only managed to simulate a handful of neurons responsible for relaying visual images to the brain.
That being said, the underlying concepts and methods are sound. With assistance from neuroengineers and new developments in technological hardware, the blind may be able to “see” for the first time within our lifetime. In the future, blindness may be a thing of the past. These individuals may simply have cameras implanted into their eyes that communicate with brain implants and provide them with vision. Perhaps they’ll even have better vision than the rest of us. Maybe we won’t even be able to tell who has these implants and who doesn’t.
One thing’s for sure, humans are getting closer to a real “visual prosthetic.”