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Restoring sight with a tiny chip

June 26, 2012 9:11:32 PM PDT
A team at Stanford University is hoping to improve on a technology that's already allowing hundreds of patients with degenerative eye disease to regain some of their sight. The key is a tiny chip, implanted directly into the eye.

"So these are our implants, they're supposed to be put in a patient's eye," said George Gotez from Stanford University.

The chips are almost too small to see with the naked eye, but a team at Stanford is hoping the microscopic silicon chips will someday help restore vision to thousands of patients suffering from eye disease.

"When you zoom in, you can see lots of individual pixels. So each one of these pixels behaves like a tiny solar cell," said Gotez.

The chips are surgically implanted underneath the retina. And like a solar panel, they're designed to capture light and convert it into electronic signals the brain can see. To achieve that goal, the Stanford team, led by professor Daniel Palanker Ph.D., created a system using special goggles and a pocket computer.

"One of the advantages of this optical system is that it's so easy to implant," said Palanker.

First, camera in the goggles relays images to the system and the computer processes the light into specialized wavelengths. A laser imbedded in the goggles then beams those light waves through the eye into the implanted chip, stimulating neurons responsible for vision.

"He will see only the fraction of the screen which is illuminated," said Palanker.

The Stanford device hasn't been tested in humans yet, but it's the latest version of a technology that's already revolutionizing the way doctors treat degenerative eye disease.

We first met Dean Lloyd four years ago, when he was one of the first 10 patients in the country to receive a different retinal implant, then known as the Argus-2.

UCSF researcher Jaque Duncan, M.D., was helping Lloyd train his brain to interpret the electronic impulses reaching his optical nerves. While awaiting final FDA approval in the U.S. she says the device is already being implanted on a weekly basis in Europe.

"It holds the hope of becoming an option for people who have lost vision many, many years ago and really have no vision left," said Duncan.

Back at Stanford, Palanker's team is hoping their approach will someday lead to a more easily implantable system that doesn't require any wires inside the eye, but still delivering enough resolution to allow patients to read.

"Large letters, basically 10-larger than normal font so maybe you'll be able to read from an iPad kind of screen size," said Palanker.

Researchers say the actual chip is barely one third the thickness of a human hair, meaning it could be easily implanted behind the retina.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.


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