Bionics open eyes to a frontier in vision restoration

A revolutionary cortical vision device, developed by Monash University researchers that could one day help restore vision to the blind, is being prepared for world-first human clinical trials in Melbourne.

Photo
A world-first device to restore vision to the blind is being prepared for human clinical trials in Melbourne.
Source: Monash University

A revolutionary cortical vision device, developed by Monash University researchers that could one day help restore vision to the blind, is being prepared for world-first human clinical trials in Melbourne. Through Monash University’s Cortical Frontiers project, researchers have developed miniaturised, wireless electronic implants that sit on the surface of the brain and have the capacity to restore vision. Further investigations have shown promise for this technology to deliver improved health outcomes to patients with otherwise untreatable neurological conditions, such as limb paralysis.

Many people who are clinically blind have damaged optic nerves. These prevent signals being transmitted from the retina to the ‘vision centre’ of the brain.

The Gennaris bionic vision system can bypass this damage, making it possible to treat many conditions that currently have treatment limitations. Gennaris is the brainchild of the Monash Vision Group (MVG). The system comprises custom-designed headgear with a camera and wireless transmitter, a vision processor unit and software, and a set of 9×9mm tiles that are implanted into the brain.

The scene captured by the video camera in the headgear will be sent to the vision processor – similar in size to a smartphone – where it will be processed to extract the most useful information. The processed data will be transmitted wirelessly to complex circuitry within each implanted tile; this will convert the data into a pattern of electrical pulses, which will stimulate the brain via hair-thin microelectrodes.

More than 10 years in the making, this project has the potential to stimulate growth in Australian manufacturing of brain implant systems. With additional funding, this life-changing technology will be made in Melbourne for distribution globally.

“Cortical vision prostheses aim to restore visual perception to those who have lost vision by delivering electrical stimulation to the visual cortex – the region of the brain that receives, integrates and processes visual information,” Professor Arthur Lowery, from the University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering, said. “Our design creates a visual pattern from combinations of up to 172 spots of light (phosphenes) which provides information for the individual to navigate indoor and outdoor environments, and recognise the presence of people and objects around them.”

Photo
The project will also support further life-saving research into brain-controlled prosthetics.
Source: Monash University

The ‘Cortical Frontiers: Commercialising brain-machine interfaces’ project, led by Dr Lewis, received just more than $1 million under the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Frontier Health and Medical Research Program, announced by Health Minister The Hon Greg Hunt in June 2019, to advance the technology and put forward a detailed plan for future investment.

The announcement of the second stage of MRFF funding, due to occur later this year, will support the best one or two applications with millions of dollars in funding across the next five years. “If successful, the MVG team will look to create a new commercial enterprise focused on providing vision to people with untreatable blindness and movement to the arms of people paralysed by quadriplegia, transforming their health care,” Dr Lewis said.

Dr. Yan Wong, from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, said: “The commercialisation of the bionic vision technology also ties in nicely to our plans for exploring further applications beyond vision and spinal cord injury, such as the moderation of epilepsy and depression, brain-controlled prosthetics, and the restoration of other vital senses. “It aligns with our capabilities in neurobionics at Monash University, and having an engaged industry partner to work alongside will be of enormous value.”

Professor Marcello Rosa, from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, said beyond improving health care and restoring vision to the blind, commercial success could see the creation of new export opportunities, highly skilled manufacturing and medical device design jobs, and economic growth for Australia. “With extra investment, we’ll be able to manufacture these cortical implants here in Australia at the scale needed to progress to human trials.”

This comes on the back of a recent successful trial on sheep, with findings published in the international Journal of Neural Engineering in July. The work represents one of the first long-term tests of a fully implantable cortical vision prosthesis in the world.

In preclinical studies, 10 arrays (seven active and three passive) were implanted using a purpose-built insertion system. Stimulation was delivered through the seven active devices for up to nine months. Cumulatively, more than 2,700 hours of stimulation was performed without any observable adverse health effects. “The study results indicate that long-term stimulation through wireless arrays can be achieved without induction of widespread tissue damage, nor visible behavioural issues or seizures resulting from the stimulation,” lead author of the study, Professor Rosenfeld, said.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

Prostheses could alleviate amputees' phantom limb pain

Prostheses could alleviate amputees' phantom limb pain

New prosthetic technologies that stimulate the nerves could pave the way for prostheses that feel like a natural part of the body and reduce the phantom limb pain commonly endured by amputees.

'Plug and play' brain prosthesis demoed in paralyzed person

'Plug and play' brain prosthesis demoed in paralyzed person

Researchers have shown that machine learning techniques helped an individual with paralysis learn to control a computer cursor using their brain activity.

Thoughts could control electronic prostheses

Thoughts could control electronic prostheses

Researchers have been working to advance a technology that could one day help people with paralysis regain use of their limbs, and enable amputees to use their thoughts to control prostheses.

The concept of creating a 'brain-on-a-chip'

The concept of creating a 'brain-on-a-chip'

Scientists have proposed the concept of a memristive neurohybrid chip to be used in compact biosensors and neuroprostheses.

"Super Human Eye" works like a real one

"Super Human Eye" works like a real one

Researchers have crafted an artificial eye with capabilities close to its human model.

Plug and Play: a ready-to-use bionic arm prosthesis implanted

Plug and Play: a ready-to-use bionic arm prosthesis implanted

Scientists have developed the world's first fully integrated bionic arm prosthesis that is ready to use – in keeping with the motto "Plug and Play".

An ultra-precise mind-controlled prosthetic

An ultra-precise mind-controlled prosthetic

Researchers have tapped faint, latent signals from arm nerves and amplified them to enable real-time, intuitive, finger-level control of a robotic hand.

Robotic hand merges amputee and robotic Control

Robotic hand merges amputee and robotic Control

Scientists have successfully tested neuroprosthetic technology that combines robotic control with users’ voluntary control, opening avenues in the new interdisciplinary field of shared control for neuroprosthetic technologies.

Nerve-on-a-chip improves neuroprosthetics

Nerve-on-a-chip improves neuroprosthetics

Scientists have developed a miniaturized electronic platform for the stimulation and recording of peripheral nerve fibers-on-a-chip.

Popular articles