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Bionic Eye Lets Blind Woman Experience Vision

samzenpus posted more than 2 years ago | from the red-computer-eyes dept.

Australia 52

An anonymous reader writes "Australian researchers implanted a bionic eye with 24 electrodes in Ms Dianne Ashworth, a 54-year-old who had limited vision due to a inherited condition called retinitis pigmentosa. The implant has allowed her to see flashes of light and shapes when researchers deliver electrical pulses to the device. From the article: 'This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light. Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera – yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.'"

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Not vision (5, Informative)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186631)

Note: This is *NOT* vision. This is an uncoordinated stimulation of neurons that is no more vision than poking your eye and seeing flashes of light or knocking yourself on the back of the head and seeing stars. Vision is a far more complicated matter and these investigators that are promoting this bionic chip have ignored or are ignorant of over a decade of research that shows the neurons in the eye change their wiring in response to retinal degenerative disease. When the wiring in the retina changes, it is no longer able to mediate normal retinal signaling...

Yes, I am a vision scientist.

Re:Not vision (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186701)

I don't think they're making any claims about her nerves system being the same as anyone else's; all of the talk in the press release is specifically about dealing with her case. Think about it for a moment—this technology's going to be used for dealing with damaged eyes for a long time much like those of Ms. Ashworth, not healthy optic systems. Perhaps they're taking on a non-minimal test case, but it's really an extremely topical one.

Re:Not vision (4, Informative)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186733)

What they are claiming is that the bionic implant will work in a degenerate retina. The substrate circuitry has changed. No chance of it transducing vision... They are either going to have to intervene at an earlier time point (much earlier than most folks realize) or bypass the retina or reconstruct the retina. There is more biology at play here than a simple engineering project.

Re:Not vision (1)

femto (459605) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186815)

In the final version, they plan on having an external camera, and stimulating the optical nerve. Presumably this bypasses the retina (or are the retina and optical nerve the same thing? I'm no expert.) Does this sound feasible? The background to this project is that it builds on previous work in Australia, on cochlea implants.

Re:Not vision (2, Insightful)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186835)

So, which ganglion cell populations are they going to stimulate? The optic nerve contains from 14-16 classes of ganglion cells that project to different areas of brain. Its a tough tough problem because those ganglion cells and the axons in the nerves project not only to LGN, but also to a large number of subcortical areas like the SCN and tectum. Then what about the remnant signals that may be coming from peripheral regions of the retina (in cases of AMD) and central retina (in cases of RP)?

Again, they are moving forward with engineering without necessarily understanding the biology.

Re:Not vision (4, Informative)

femto (459605) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186887)

The background to this project is that a newly elected government held a big "vox poluli" talk fest called 2020 [] , which was to lay out a "big vision" for Australia. A result was the announcement [] of $50 million funding for a bionic eye project. It's entirely possible that there is an element of "gung ho" about it in that a large chunk of money was laid down for a project that made politicians look good and was easy for the public to understand.

Having said that, there are some pretty smart people involved. As an Australian taxpayer, I'd hope that they are aware for the problems you raise and, given the grandness of the project, would plan on addressing such tough, tough problems. Given your area of expertise, maybe you should contact them? There might be some pretty exciting work to be done in collaboration?

Re:Not vision (2)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41187025)

Yeah, its easy for people to get enthused about rescuing vision loss. Its an important thing and keeps us working at all hours of the day as hard as we can to understand how the visual system works and how to fix it when it goes wrong. We've published before on this issue and I am sure they are aware of the work. My only concern is when promises are made to patients and expectations are built up that these devices will cure blindness when the biology has not been worked out and the engineering is predicated upon that imprecise understanding of the biology.

Re:Not vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41187063)

their site claims:

"A person using a retinal implant to see won't experience vision in the same way that a person with a healthy eye does. It will be quite basic to start with and they will need training to adapt to the implant. With time, training and patience, people will be able to use this visual information so they can be more independent and mobile.

The retinal implant bionic eye works by stimulating the perception of light in a patient. A phosphene is a perceived spot of light in the visual field. What our technology aims to do is stimulate many of these phosphenes across the visual field in a way that enables the patient to put together a picture of what they're looking at.

The more electrodes an implant contains, the more phosphenes are capable of being generated and the more detail a patient may be able to see. The first wide-view prototype device has 98 electrodes. The second High-Acuity device has more than 1024 electrodes."

I think they do know what they are doing, and are not saying that it is a step towards wiring in cameras. Its about perception of space, and they do know what they are doing and where they are going with it.

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41188901)

We'll see... I would have liked to have seen some traditional methods of evaluation in animal models using psychophysics before moving directly to humans. Were I a betting man, I don't think the engineering is up to the biological task right now. A couple decades work already suggests that we don't yet understand how the information is coded to get into the brain.

Re:Not vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41187331)

So, which ganglion cell populations are they going to stimulate? The optic nerve contains from 14-16 classes of ganglion cells that project to different areas of brain. Its a tough tough problem because those ganglion cells and the axons in the nerves project not only to LGN, but also to a large number of subcortical areas like the SCN and tectum. Then what about the remnant signals that may be coming from peripheral regions of the retina (in cases of AMD) and central retina (in cases of RP)?

Again, they are moving forward with engineering without necessarily understanding the biology.

No, I'm pretty sure that somewhere in this project is someone understanding the biology, you know, because it would be retarded to think otherwise you clown. maybe the article and the slashdot monkeys are not really understanding what the project is trying to do. I'm guessing at some point they probably, you know, consulted with a neurosurgeon or eye doctor

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41188911)

Ah, ad hominem attacks from an Anonymous Coward... You will note that I am an "eye doctor". What are your qualifications to call someone else a clown?

Re:Not vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41189841)

His qualifications are:
1) He's not stupid enough to think that the people working on vision implants *don't have people in the project who understand the biology*.

That's really about all it takes, since you made the outlandish claim that they didn't. It's akin to me being able to call someone a clown when they claim that some big skyscraper project doesn't have anyone involved who understands the basic physics and engineering to build such a structure. Barring actual evidence (which you didn't provide), such a claim is so moronic as to boggle the thinking mind. Therefore, we are justified in calling you a "clown" based on that statement.

Re:Not vision (3, Informative)

sjames (1099) | more than 2 years ago | (#41187391)

From work already done, we know that even very minimal vision is a vast improvement in quality of life over no vision. Yes, probing blindly (no pun intended) is quite hackish, but if a person gets something vision like that is useful, that's a fine result.

I would argue that 100% of medical treatments we have today from first aid up are all based on moving ahead without necessarily understanding the biology. For example, we have used aspirin for over a century but only recently gained some idea of how it works. Clearly though, that understanding was flawed since the first attempt to produce a better treatment based on the new understanding gave us vioxx, which didn't work out so well. It was quite a long time from when we figured out setting bones and casting to the time we had any idea how the bone then heals. All we know is that if you put the ends more or less back together and support it for a while, it would heal.

I have no doubt that better understanding of the biology will result in better engineering and ultimately better vision, but meanwhile, there are people who are blind right now. It is important not to let perfect be the enemy of functional.

Meanwhile, the entire point of the work in TFA is to learn more about what is actually required to get functional vision this way. It's certainly a lot less risky than implants directly into the visual cortex (which have been tried with some success).

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41188963)

This is just my point. While I understand that science and engineering has to start somewhere, they have made promises to this woman and done surgery to her, potentially increasing risks for other problems where I would argue there is no hope of "seeing" anything coherent.

Yes, we can do remarkable things with even an 8x8 pixel array, but this approach has no promise of even delivering that to this woman. The electrode cuff on the optic nerve simply stimulates too many neurons that are not coherent and those neurons project to far too many areas of cortex. A retinal implant that appropriately targets cell populations would be more appropriate as would genetic engineering of targeted opsins to other cell classes.

As for implants directly in the cortex, I might argue that this has a better chance of stimulating phosphenes that could be interpreted as vision. I've participated in some of that early work [] and while I believe there are other approaches that will be more effective, that work still has some promise (particularly for motor interfaces).

Re:Not vision (1)

awrowe (1110817) | more than 2 years ago | (#41190509)

I have to comment here, a lot of what you are saying is coming across as "not invented here" syndrome, which is a bit of a shame.

I'm convinced beyond all doubt that there are qualified people working on this. I'm also convinced they have more than a basic understanding of biology.

I couldn't find anywhere in the article or the linked videos where they had made promises to Ms Ashworth. On the contrary, she seems fully aware, as do the researchers themselves not surprisingly, that this exercise is experimental.

Re:Not vision (1)

sjames (1099) | more than 2 years ago | (#41193165)

I'm not so sure they made the woman any promises other than some sort of visual stimulation (which seems nearly certain to happen even if it's useless).

The approach is admittedly brute force. I get the impression that they intend to map the electrodes out now that they are implanted to work out what is connected where. It is quite possible that some will prove entirely useless. Others might be limited to small stimulation to avoid spillover. Stimulating the SCN might actually prove to be a happy side effect since it could stabilize her circadian rhythm. Ultimately, stimulation of areas other then the visual cortex will likely be necessary to ever restore normal-like vision. For example, to be able to react to visual threats properly.

Re:Not vision (1)

Pseudonym (62607) | about 2 years ago | (#41202993)

Disclaimer: I work for one of the organisations in the Bionic Vision Australia consortium. I don't work on the project specifically. I do know several people who do.

BVA is quite a large group of researchers. Some of them are engineers, some are physicists, some are clinicians and some are biologists. I don't know for sure, but I would be willing to bet the group as a whole understands the biology.

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | about 2 years ago | (#41203049)

Check into it and ask about the impact of retinal remodeling on potential interventions.

Re:Not vision (1)

Pseudonym (62607) | about 2 years ago | (#41209189)

No guarantees, but one thing I do know is that the implant is designed to bypass the retina completely and stimulate the optic nerve directly.

Re:Not vision (1)

Pseudonym (62607) | about 2 years ago | (#41209241)

Actually, I may have gotten that wrong. At any rate, if you want to follow the research on the biology side, I believe that this guy [] is the PI. Check out his publications.

Re:Not vision (2)

romanval (556418) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186823)

they're working on optic nerve transmissions for people that lost total vision due to macular degeneration or other diseases. See this Ted Talk presentation []

Biological eyes encode vision data as electrical impulses sent to our brain; they're trying to reverse engineer the encoded data at the optic nerve level, which will help make prosthetic eyes a reality.

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189007)

I am familiar with Nirenberg's work. What Nirenberg seems to be missing is that the programming outflow of the retina is altered in retinal disease. ON and OFF channels are substantially altered in retinal disease and the whole programming substrate is altered because the circuitry and programming down to the molecular levels is altered.

Its not all pessimism though as we will need to understand how the normal retina signals and I find her work to be interesting and compelling. Though she is not addressing *which channels* of information outflow are being encoded. There are 14-16 separate outflow channels in the retina that project to different areas of cortex and sub cortex and she is not addressing how to separate those channels and what those separate channels mean in terms of the "visual world".

Re:Not vision (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#41190813)

There is more biology at play here than a simple engineering project.

There's also psychology involved. How do you think you'd deal with a previously unknown sense? Some people find becoming sighted to be a terrifying and confusing experience, which can even end in suicide [] .

A person who is well adapted to blindness should think very carefully about becoming sighted.

Re:Not vision (2)

niftydude (1745144) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186797)

When the wiring in the retina changes, it is no longer able to mediate normal retinal signaling...

My understanding is that this device bypasses the retina completely, and stimulates the optic nerve directly - it is essentially an array of diamond spikes shooting electricity into the optic nerve. They are hoping that they can then retrain someone's brain to "see" images based on the electric signal they supply

Are you saying that the neurons in the brain completely change their behaviour as a retina degrades, making this technique useless? If so, is this true for all forms of retina failure?

Note that tfa refers to a woman who is experiencing what she calls "flashes of light" from the device. Do you think it will be impossible to arrange those flashes into images?

Re:Not vision (2)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186845)

For the first part, see my comment to femto above.

As for the neurons changing their behavior, yes... that is exactly what I am saying. It definitely happens in the retina as the retina is reprogrammed and there is some evidence that it happens higher up as well. Though those precise studies have yet to be performed.

So, flashes of light are simply uncoordinated signaling by neurons. Turns out vision is far more complicated than the cochlear system that allows us to engineer bionic solutions for hearing. Provided the cochlea is intact, it is easy to stimulate those neurons in an appropriate manner that people can learn to interpret. Vision is another story entirely and unless you stimulate the *right* neurons with the *right* type of stimulation, its not gonna work.

Re:Not vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41187083)

You're ignorant of the work of Paul Bach-y-Rita and call yourself a Vision Scientist?

There's enough plasticity that you can hook up things in all sorts of ways and get it processed as vision. If you can stick electrodes on your *tongue*, I don't see this being an insurmountable difference.

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189093)

[sigh].... do not feed the troll.... do not feed the troll...

OK, I'll feed the troll. Yes, I am acutely aware of Paul Bach-y-Rita's work. You however apparently do not understand the concepts that you are invoking. There is plasticity in neural systems, yes. Plasticity is important in vision, sure. Nobody, *anywhere* has demonstrated that they can generate coherent "visual percepts" in a coordinated fashion with any kind of stimulus. Its far more complicated than hooking up electrodes and stimulating until someone "learns" what the stimulus means.

btw, the tongue thing is very, very cool. Its not vision and does not even map to vision, but those lingual electrodes can easily map topographic data, sonar data, relief data, contrast data onto the high resolution innervation of the tongue and allow people to interpret those stimulii as a map to be followed. The technology was originally developed for US Navy SEALS to navigate complex 3D environments at night, with no light and it works. It works incredibly well with very little training necessary. I would like to see more effort and funds put into techniques like that to help people live more independent lives.

Re:Not vision (1)

Stingray454 (1942828) | more than 2 years ago | (#41187677)

I've seen some nice advances in the field lately, like the ones in this TED talk [] . I understood that this was a first implementation of this technology, but you're saying it's more the old "wire a low resolution light sensor directly to the optic nerve and see what happens" that people have been doing for years?

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189101)

Yes. Precisely.

Re:Not vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41188461)

It may not restore vision, but the brain, being very "plastic", will learn to recognize new signals and patterns based on the information it does receive, and this is a good thing for say, someone who's lost both eyes.

Reminds me of the guy who's tongue was turned into a sort of "vision", maybe a decade ago?

Re:Not vision (1)

BWJones (18351) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189107)

Nossir. That is not correct. See my comment just above.

Re:Not vision (1)

flibbidyfloo (451053) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189665)

So it's *not* better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick?

Archer (1)

systemidx (2708649) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186633)

Shades of Bionic Barry...

Old News? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186643)

I feel like I heard about this on BBC nearly 10 years ago.

Re:Old News? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186699)

Make it 20.

Check William Dobelle's work.

I remember reading about it or seeing it on the TV back in the 90s or so...

Re:Old News? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186721)

Make it 30?

Wired article link Dobelle's 1st experiment was in 1978...

Previous work? (3, Informative)

p0p0 (1841106) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186655)

What's happened to previous work in this field? I remember years ago an implant that let a blind man (how blind he was, I do not know) see the equivalent of a monochrome 16x16 image. It allowed for basic shapes and object recognition. This one seems to be a step back. What gives?

Re:Previous work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186703)

The work you mention has spun off a company called Second Sight [] .

Re:Previous work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186809)

I think its highly dependent on patient/condition. What worked for that person might not work for this etc...

Re:Previous work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186827)

It's the competition stupid. :) Maybe they are a bit behind in the research although I suspect they have plenty of time to catch up. Especially if they are well funded.

Re:Previous work? (1)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | more than 2 years ago | (#41187289)

You remember correctly, people have been doing this for years. I have no idea why TFA calls this "world first bionic eye", perhaps there is something new about their particular method, although it doesn't sound very impressive compared to other options.

Here is a list of some companies producing retinal implants (incl. Bionic Vision from TFA): [] At least some of those are already past clinical trials and available commercially.

The latest, greatest breakthrough:
Scientists reverse engineer eye-brain signaling, enabling next generation of implants []

More links on retinal implants:
Wikipedia - Retinal implant []
1000-electrode implant developed in Stanford []
Long-term trials started in Oxford in 2010 []
Phase II trials of 1500-electrode implant by Retina Implant AG (2011) []
Argus II implant goes to market []
Bio-Retina 576-pixel implant to start trials in 2013 []

Re:Previous work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41187465)

Seems to be some hype in this. Here are two projects that went through this phase a while ago. Both of them
claim to assist with retinitis pigmentosa.

Re:Previous work? (1)

Zocalo (252965) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189029)

That sounds like the work of William Dobelle, [] who was probably the true pioneer in the field of bionic vision. However, Dobelle's subject, "Jerry", needed a device consisting of external glasses, a camera, a computer on a waistband and a neural impact to achieve the equivalent of 20/400 vision where as this is (mostly) embedded in a synthetic eye on the user-side with a requirement for some external equipment in the lab. The size of the lab equipment isn't provided though, so it may not even be portable.

Given that Dobelle's device was built with technology available in 2001 it seems a little disingenuous to me to claim this is a "world's first" when the only real advance is that they have effectively moved the hardware from Dobelle's pair of glasses into a prosthetic eyeball. Especially so, given that the device as a whole is still some way behind Dobelle's, and may not even be portable for quite some time while the solution is developed. Still, it's early days yet, and at least their patients are not going to risk being assaulted if they try and buy a Big Mac [] ...

Re:Previous work? (0)

slashmydots (2189826) | more than 2 years ago | (#41189243)

This has the trademarks of every other BS medical/science project.
1. promise billions to investors if you succeed
2. pretend that there is no competition and your project is the best
3. lie and lie and lie and lie and lie to keep the funding coming in so the scientists can keep their jobs
4. the entire project collapses when your competition actually invent something, seeing as how they were 5 years ahead of you in the first place
5. try to get a show on the discovery channel

Bionic vagina and anus (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186687)

where are they?

WWW: Wake (2)

Leinad177 (2708661) | more than 2 years ago | (#41186709)

Now we just have to plug it into a computer and voila, they'll be able to see just as much as most of us.

prior art (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41186981)

wow. here I am reading Robert Sawyer's "Watch"

Correction (2)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | more than 2 years ago | (#41187273)

Bionic Eye Lets Almost-Blind Woman Experience Random Flashes of Light

fggg (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41187699)


Slow play (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | more than 2 years ago | (#41188321)

I want (and soon will need) Ixian eyes now, damnit!!

Jamie Summers got the bionic ear (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41191731)

Steve Austin got the bionic eye.

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