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High Tech Can Help the Blind See and Amputees Feel

It’s not a miracle; the human nervous system can work with electronic information

Recently, six completely blind people have had their vision partially restored at the Baylor College of Medicine by Orion, a device that feeds camera images directly into the brain via electrodes, bypassing damaged optic nerves:

The Orion device comprises two main parts: a brain implant and a pair of glasses. The implant consists of 60 electrodes that receive information from a camera mounted on the glasses. Together, they can deliver visual information directly to the wearer’s brain, removing the eyes from the equation entirely.

“If you can imagine every spot in the visual field in the visual world, there’s a corresponding part of the brain that represents that area, that spatial location,” researcher Daniel Yoshor explained in a video on the tech. “And we know that if we stimulate someone’s brain… in a specific spot, we will produce a perception of a spot of light corresponding to that map in the visual world.”

Kristin Houser, “Seeing Without Eyes” at Futurism

Artificial vision is still in its infancy and this was only a clinical trial. But so far the results have been encouraging.

Even now, it beats total blindness, says participant Benjamin Spencer, blinded by pediatric glaucoma, who clearly relishes the opportunity to work with the equipment: “For someone who hasn’t seen anything in twenty-five years, that is a huge accomplishment.”

The use of AI to enhance damaged eyesight is a reversal of an unusual natural adaptation called blindsight. When the visual cortex of the brain is damaged but the eyes themselves are sound, some blind people show the ability to sense objects that they do not consciously experience seeing. The eyes appear to adapt to working with parts of the brain which the person does not consciously experience: “Daniel was adamant that nothing had appeared before his eyes, yet his accuracy was around 80%, much more than if he had been guessing randomly.” (BBC, 2015) In the case of high-tech, it’s the eyes that are damaged and the visual cortex that is sound and could function if input were available.
25 July 2019

In another recent advance, University of Utah researchers re-engineered a prosthetic hand so that an amputee could control the device with his thoughts and “feel a wide range of sensations, helping him physically grasp a variety of delicate objects, from a glass of wine to a single grape:

“A lot of people think of touch as one sense, but touch is actually comprised of many different senses,” says Jacob George, a postdoctoral researcher who led the study. “There are sensors in your hand for pain, for temperature, for vibration, for pressure—and so what we’re doing is identifying each one of those little sensors.”

The researchers isolated 119 “sensory precepts,” or perceptions, from their subject. To do so they first implanted electrodes into the peripheral nerves on his forearm, crafting a kind of replacement wiring system for the lost hand. Then they stimulated different circuits inside each electrode to figure out what triggered each sensory precept. These were then mapped onto the prosthetic hand to create a “really good approximation of the same information that [the subject] would be getting from their natural hand,” George says.

Jeffery DelViscio, “A Robot Hand Helps Amputees “Feel” Again” at Scientific American

So far, the team has succeeded with only eight patients and, assuming the unit gets FDA approval, the “first-adopter” model will be very expensive (somewhere in the range of $100,000-$200,000).

But again, it’s a start.

See also: New mind-controlled robot arm needs no brain implant. The thought-controlled device could help people with movement disorders control devices without the costs and risks of surgery.

Featured image: Industrial 4.0/Zap2photo, Adobe Stock

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High Tech Can Help the Blind See and Amputees Feel