By Nishat Khan
For ages, people have wanted to find a cure to blindness, and it has proved to be a futile effort– until now. Dr. Sheila Nirenberg of Weill Cornell Medical College has done what once seemed impossible: she has deciphered the neural code that translates light into what we see. Having done this, she has begun to develop an artificial retina that has the potential to give people who suffer from degenerative retinal disease the ability to see again.
According to Cornell University, Dr. Nirenberg’s artificial retina has shown promise in animals and has the potential of working in humans.
In December of 2011, Dr. Nirenberg gave a TED Talk, talking about how and why people go blind and how she plans on fixing it. In the presentation, she described how people go blind. She said, “The photoreceptors die. All the cells around them die. And then, one day, the only cells you have left are the output cells, the ones that send signals to the brain.” In regards to how the device she plans on making works, she said, ” So it consists of two parts, what we call an encoder and a transducer. And so the encoder does just what I was saying: it mimics the actions of the front-end circuitry — so it takes images in and converts them into the retina’s code. And then the transducer then makes the output cells send the code on up to the brain, and the result is a retinal prosthetic that can produce normal retinal output.” She has a very ambitious view on this, and by the looks of it, Dr. Nirenberg’s device may be just what we need to cure blindness. You can watch the full talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aa2JfigaNcs .
The procedure would require no surgery. Instead, it would involve an eye injection containing a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin. After this, patients wear glasses with a camera and computer chip, allowing it to interact with the protein through a series of light pulses. The camera will take in images and the computer chip will convert it to the retina’s code that can communicate images with the brain. The code is then converted to light pulses which activate the protein which was earlier injected into the eye, telling the wearer what it is looking at.
Dr. Nirenberg plans to raise money so she can get the device approved by the FDA. She did get a good $625,000 cash prize from the MacArthur Foundation, but the cost of getting the device marketed is about $6 million. However, this doesn’t seem to be much of a drawback for her.
Apart from this, Dr. Nirenberg is already looking ahead in seeing how she could help people with other disabilities. According to Cornell University, the same approach can be used to create a wide array of better devices to help with disabilities such as paralysis and deafness.