New technology gives hope for the blind

April 15, 2010 6:58:43 PM PDT
A technology that's bringing limited sight to people suffering from certain kinds of blindness could soon become much more powerful. That's because of advances being made by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Lab.

Last September Dean Lloyd began training his brain to see what his eyes cannot.

A camera in Dean's glasses is focused on UCSF researcher Dr. Jacque Duncan. As she moves, her image is sent through a video processor, to an experimental device that will then project it onto the neurons in dean's right eyes. Not as a complete picture, but flashes of light.

"We try to connect the stars to get some sort of an image," Dean said.

The light Dean sees is produced by a surgically implanted strip containing dozens of electrodes. It's part of an artificial retina system called the Argus-2.

The materials it uses to capture and transmit the light were created at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

"So this device has to be very soft, very sensitive to the retina and has to put minimal pressure. So we use a polymer, a bio-compatible polymer," project manager Sat Pannu.

Pannu showed ABC7 how the unique materials are made. First he passes into a lab lit with the kind of colored lamps you might expect to see heating a chicken at the deli-counter.

"To make these devices, we actually have to transfer a pattern onto our thin films," he said.

In a multi-stage process, his team will sandwich light-sensitive layers onto a wafer, then manipulate them to create a kind of bio-compatible processor for the eye.

"It's basically another polymer that's sensitive to light. So when it gets exposed to light in certain area, it actually develops away, and where we don't expose it to light it stays behind," Pannu said.

Ultimately, those microscopic pathways channeled through the polymers will guide electrical impulses to the optic nerves inside the retina, producing the sensation of light.

Remember though, the device Dean is wearing contains only about 60 electrodes or pixels, allowing him to see rudimentary shapes.

But soon a new generation of the technology being developed at Livermore could improve that resolution, and what the patient is able to see dramatically

"So currently, the goal is to develop 1,000 electrodes, and at that resolution we're pretty sure patients will be able to see faces, to recognize different faces, so we're really shooting for that," Pannu said.

Facial recognition and someday, farther into the future, he believes possibly color vision too.

For now, the lab is working on a more modest 240 electrode model, before tackling the 1000-pixel version. But for patients like Dean, it's a future coming more clearly into focus.

The artificial retina project is being funded in large part by the Department of Energy. The Livermore team hopes to have the new version, to be called the Argus-3, ready by next year.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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