Science 3 min read

New Optic Nerve Stimulation Method to Aid the Blind

A new approach to stimulate the optic nerve could potentially help restore the eyesight of people with visual impairment.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Scientists at the École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland are working in colleagues from Italy to develop a technology for the blind. It involves completely bypassing the eyeball and sends messages directly to the brain.

To do this, the researchers had to stimulate the optic nerve using a new type of intraneural electrode called OpticSELINE.

According to the research published in the medical journal The Lancet, the global prevalence of blindness stands at 36 million people.

Visual impairment can be induced by various factors, including genetics, cataracts, glaucoma, retinal detachment, trauma, and stroke in the visual cortex, to name a few. While some blindness is temporary and can be treated medically, others are permanent.

Still, researchers have developed ways of helping people with permanent visual impairment.

An example of such is using retinal implants, a prosthetic device for restoring sight to patients blinded by retinal degeneration. Unfortunately, this method suffers from the exclusion criteria.

About half a million people across the world are blind due to a genetic disorder called Retinitis pigmentosa. However, only a few hundred patients are eligible for retinal implants.

Another option way of treating permanent blindness is to stimulate the optic nerve using an electrode. But, past result from such procedure had been inconclusive.

EPFL‘s Medtronic Chair in Neuroengineering, Diego Ghezzi explains:

“Back then, they used cuff nerve electrodes. The problem is that these electrodes are rigid, and they move around, so the electrical stimulation of the nerve fibers becomes unstable. The patients had a difficult time interpreting the stimulation because they kept on seeing something different.”

Instead of using cuff nerve electrodes like their past researchers, the EPFL team chose to use intraneural electrodes. Aside from providing rich visual information, intraneural electrodes are stable and less likely to move around once implanted in a participant.

Using OpticSELINE for Optic Nerve Stimulation

To stimulate the optic nerve, Ghezzi and the rest of the EPFL team invented an array of 12 electrodes called OpticSELINE. Next, the researchers decided to test how active the electrodes are at stimulating the various nerve fiber within the optic nerve.

For this part of the study, the team delivered electric current to the optic nerve through OpticSELINE, then measured the activities in the visual cortex. Thanks to an elaborate algorithm that they had developed beforehand, the researchers were able to decode the cortical signals.

The researchers noted that each stimulating electrode induces a specific and unique pattern of cortical activation. This led to the conclusion that intraneural stimulation of the optic nerve is selective and informative.

Since the study is only preliminary, the scientists still don’t understand the visual perception behind the cortical patterns.

Ghezzi noted:

“For now, we know that intraneural stimulation has the potential to provide informative visual patterns. It will take feedback from patients in future clinical trials to fine-tune those patterns. From a purely technological perspective, we could do clinical trials tomorrow.”

With current electrode technology, it’s possible to create a human OpticSELINE that consists of 48 to 60 electrodes. The researchers point out that while the limited number of the electrode may not be sufficient to restore sight completely, it could provide a visual aid for daily living.

Read More: Glasswing Butterflies Inspire Optical Implants That Treat Glaucoma

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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