Spanish researchers have succeeded in partially restoring the sight of a blind woman. Will we soon be able to cure blindness?
At the end of an impressive series of experiments, Spanish researchers have succeeded in achieving a veritable almost biblical feat spotted by Interesting Engineering: rendering part of his visual acuity to a woman with total blindness for sixteen years!
We are all attached to all of our senses, which define how we perceive our surroundings. But few take up as much space as the view on a human scale. This meaning is obviously omnipresent in everyday life and allows us to identify our fellow human beings and their expressions, to find our way around our environment, and much more.
Being deprived of it is therefore a radical life change, especially when it occurs in adulthood. It has therefore been thousands of years that we try to restore sight to them who are deprived of it, with sometimes terribly barbaric methods that shiver down the spine.
And fortunately, science has progressed well since the butcher shops of antiquity, and is now turning to various implants. But the worry is that the vision doesn’t just happen within the eye, far from it. A bit like in a camera, the optics are only the tip of the iceberg; Once the information is captured, it is behind the scenes that the information is processed. In humans, this happens in an area of the brain called the visual cortex.
An implant that dazzles your eyes
And if clinical ophthalmology is an extremely specialized field, perhaps neuroscience is even more so. Working at this scale is very difficult in many ways. It was not until the end of the 2000s that the idea became serious. It was not until 2017 that we saw the first concrete tracks emerge from Ken Shepard’s team at Columbia University.
Since then, the discipline has made progress. So much so that last year, Spanish researchers managed to produce an innovative system. This includes a frontal sensor that acts as an artificial retina; this then transmits the light patterns to a implant cerebral which in turn stimulates the visual cortex in primates to make them see shapes or movements. A considerable advance, the concept of which deserved to be tested on humans… and it is now a done deal.
After having their clinical protocol validated, the researchers worked with Bernardeta Gòmez, a courageous Spanish girl of 57 years who agreed to take the plunge. This lady unfortunately suffered from a disease which completely destroyed her optic nerves; without this structure that connects the retina to the visual cortex, she ended up in a situation of complete blindness.
A partial and temporary vision, but already immense promises
The researchers implanted their device on him in the visual cortex. The artificial retina, for its part, has been incorporated into a pair of glasses. And when she woke up, the result turned out to be more than impressive: Ms. Gomez was able to correctly recognize the whole alphabet ! After a period of training, she was even able to recognize the silhouette complex objects.
Certainly we are still far from a 10/10 vision. But knowing that this lady was starting from scratch, there is something to be amazed at. Even without being able to distinguish the nuances of a face, the ability to recognize shapes could be a game-changer in everyday life. This could allow blind people to move around with less constraints, and even to read without having to use braille.
Unfortunately for this lady, this little rebirth was short-lived; since he had never been tested in vivo for so long, the implant was removed after six months as a precautionary principle. But this period allowed the team to collect a mountain of data, synonymous with significant progress. So much so that today they are already working on a final version of this implant.
But there is still a long way to go. Once this new stage is over, it will be necessary miniaturize even more electrodes to multiply the number. This will make it possible to control more neurons, with the hope of one day being able to recreate a perfect image, identical to that produced by a healthy visual system… and therefore radically change the lives of millions of people with blindness. The text of the study is available here.