My graduate research area is the subject of an article in this week’s New Yorker by Jerome Groopman. The article’s title sums it up nicely: “The Bionic Eye: Can an electronic device help the blind see?” The story itself doesn’t appear to be on line, or I’d link to it. But these Google searches yield related material: retinal implant, retinal prosthesis. If you’re a real masochist you might take a look at my Ph.D. thesis.
I haven’t thought about bionic eyes in several years, so it’s a little surreal to read about the research and the people, especially in my cherished New Yorker. I spent seven years on this problem, nearly a quarter of my life. So many memories. A little disturbing how quietly they slipped from consciousness.
The research itself is progressing. Groopman interviews a couple of patients who have received permanent implants and report sporadic ability to distiguish brightness and rough shapes. Not exactly the six-million dollar man, but a tremendous leap from seeing nothing at all.
There remain a lot of basic engineering challenges around building an electronic device that can survive in the salty, wobbling environment of the eye and how to deposit the device without harming the eye itself. But the really fascinating part, which Groopman picked up on, is the challenge of interfacing directly with the brain. That’s what we’re talking about here. On the retina’s exposed surface are millions of sensors that can be activated with localized bursts of electricty, much like the shock you get when you put your tongue across the terminals of a 9-volt battery (how we tested their charge in my day). How will the brain interpret this artificial signal burst? What about a brain that hasn’t processed visual information in 10 years? 50 years?
These questions are also relevant for cochlear implant research, whose goal is to restore hearing by exciting neurons in the inner ear.