Most people will agree that the world of prosthetics has come a long way in giving people abilities they would have lost due to accidents or other reasons. We have legs and hands and other parts created to look exactly like the real thing. They even also behave like the real thing. The one field that has not had great progress has been that of sight. However, thanks to the hard work of scientists at Harvard Medical School, there is a new breakthrough for the Blind.
Brains at Work
The new method of helping the blind see builds on an earlier method which helps people in the same situation using electrodes. In the current method, the electrodes are implanted into the brain where the signal is sent to them. However, with time, the cells that are in contact with the electrodes (being a foreign body) become scarred. This scarring significantly reduces the effectiveness of the method thus making the vision poor again. This method, therefore, cannot be relied upon for the long term as it gets poor with time.
The new method, which has been made possible by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, has been named Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs). The most important addition to the new method has been that it eliminates the need of implanted electrodes. In this way, there will be no more scarred tissues to reduce the effectiveness of the vision of the affected party. Rather, the new electrodes are placed on the inside of the skull and not in the tissue. Having rested on the surface of the brain of the patient, they transmit signals through the use of magnetic waves that are powerful enough to induce brain activity.
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The design and workings of the new model have already been finalized and tested on mice. The testing was done on the subject mice by scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital with the results being published last December in the Science Advances journal. The next frontier will be testing the same model on monkeys whose brains are closer to those of humans than mice are. The target is to get them to find their way through a maze blindfolded.
According to Bernard Casse of the Xerox PARC research institute, the monkeys will be needed to navigate the maze simply by following darkness and light or certain basic patterns of geometry using the new science. The new design of helping the brain develop images is a result of the efforts of former President Barrack Obama under the BRAIN initiative aimed at helping the blind. With such technology, the number of blind people able to see again will tremendously increase especially if the tests on the monkeys go as expected. The biggest advantage is that the new technology will not have the same problems its previous iterations have.
Going for the Brain
The previous technologies in this regard usually go for the eyes in trying to do away with blindness. The new one under investigation, however, directly goes for the brain to recreate the aspects of the scene. To achieve this, the new technology goes for the stimulation of the visual cortex of the brain. The visual cortex is responsible for the vision of the eyes and thus making it possible to know what lies ahead of you. With this technology, it will be possible to directly recreate a scene without the eyes and thus see without the eyes. This method then uses the image from a camera in recreating the scene in the brain of the individual who is using it. It is a wonderful method that is the next frontier in human science.
The Potential of BCI
While it is the first time BCI is being ported to the brain in aid of the eyes, this science has been applied on many other areas of the body with excellent results. In fact, there is a Brazilian gentleman who regained his sense of touch following an implant in his brain. Another woman who was plagued with ALS was able to regain her communication capabilities all thanks to BCI. The only problem was that the results could not last as the electrodes used as parts of the implant would eventually create scar tissue thus reducing the effectiveness of the implant.
The potential for the new method is way more than most people can ever think. For instance, it can be used to regulate many other parts of the body that the brain no longer controls due to damage of some sorts.
Article by Ali Raza