Frontiers of science: Implants in the brain to make you see again

In Spain, the experiment that restored sight to a woman who had been blind for 16 years thanks to an implant in her brain and an artificial retina

Not even a year ago, the New Atlas published the news that Spanish scientists had created a "bio-hybrid" artificial retina believed to treat, and in some cases cure, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) - one of the most common causes of blindness in older people.

The artificial retina, which had yet to be tested, was intended to be implanted in the eyes of MSD patients. But science runs fast, and the artificial retina has already been tested by the first patient, who is not elderly and does not have MSD.

The experiment on a woman who had been blind for 16 years

When the news was released a year ago, it was openly spoken of as "not yet ripe time" to establish the real effectiveness of the artificial retina. However, researchers at Miguel Hernández University performed tests and controls at unusual speeds, and today the results of the first brain implant capable of restoring sight to patients are available.

The woman who first experienced the implant is a 57-year-old Spanish woman who had been blind for 16 years due to an infection.

The woman lived with the implant and the artificial retina for six months: the volunteer was able to recognize some letters, the shape of some objects and played a special version of Pac-Man created especially for her.

The implant that for six months restored the volunteer's sight is a tiny 4-millimeter-large matrix, equipped with 100 microelectrodes capable of communicating with incoming and outgoing neurons, i.e., to record brain signals but also to actively stimulate neuronal activity.

The brain implant is associated with a special pair of glasses on which is installed an artificial retina system, a "bio-hybrid" according to the scientists behind the experiment, which processes images.

Seeing without eyes

The operation of the device object of the experiment, which has given very optimistic results for the continuation and expansion of the study, is to send the stimuli of the artificial retina not to the eyes, but directly to the cerebral cortex.

Direct stimulation of the brain would therefore be able, if supported by an instrument capable of processing images, to restore sight not only to people suffering from MSD, as in the original intentions of the research, but to different types of patients.

The possibility of "skipping" the eyes to send stimuli directly to the brain represents an important discovery that could lead, in the not too distant future, to the possibility of seeing without eyes.

Although one may be rather reluctant to the idea of a brain implant, the solution studied by Spanish researchers was found to be quite safe and non-invasive: the technology works even with very low levels of electrical activity, and its operation does not involve the areas of the brain not affected by the implant.

The widespread use of "bionic eyes" as science fiction dictates is still a long way off, but the research - which has already attracted the attention of leading research institutions - is just beginning.