First nanoengineered retinal implant could help the blind regain functional vision

Nanowires provide higher resolution than anything achieved by other devices --- closer to the dense spacing of photoreceptors in the human retina
March 16, 2017

Activated by incident light, photosensitive silicon nanowires 1 micrometer in diameter stimulate residual undamaged retinal cells to induce visual sensations. (credit (image adapted): Sohmyung Ha et al./ J. Neural Eng)

A team of engineers at the University of California San Diego and La Jolla-based startup Nanovision Biosciences Inc. have developed the first nanoengineered retinal prosthesis — a step closer to restoring the ability of neurons in the retina to respond to light.

The technology could help tens of millions of people worldwide suffering from neurodegenerative diseases that affect eyesight, including macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, and loss of vision due to diabetes.

Despite advances in the development of retinal prostheses over the past two decades, the performance of devices currently on the market to help the blind regain functional vision is still severely limited — well under the acuity threshold of 20/200 that defines legal blindness.

The new prosthesis relies on two new technologies: implanted arrays of photosensitive nanowires and a wireless power/data system.

Implanted arrays of silicon nanowires

The new prosthesis uses arrays of nanowires that simultaneously sense light and electrically stimulate the retina. The nanowires provide higher resolution than anything achieved by other devices — closer to the dense spacing of photoreceptors in the human retina, according to the researchers.*

Comparison of retina and electrode geometries between an existing retinal prosthesis and new nanoengineered prosthesis design. (left) Planar platinum electrodes (gray) of the FDA-approved Argus II retinal prosthesis (a 60-element array with 200 micrometer electrode diameter). (center) Retinal photoreceptor cells: rods (yellow) and cones (green). (right) Fabricated silicon nanowires (1 micrometer in diameter) at the same spatial magnification as photoreceptor cells. (credit: Science Photo Library and Sohmyung Ha et al./ J. Neural Eng.)

Existing retinal prostheses require a vision sensor (such as a camera) outside of the eye to capture a visual scene and then transform it into signals to sequentially stimulate retinal neurons (in a matrix). Instead, the silicon nanowires mimic the retina’s light-sensing cones and rods to directly stimulate retinal cells. The nanowires are bundled into a grid of electrodes, directly activated by light.

This direct, local translation of incident light into electrical stimulation makes for a much simpler — and scalable — architecture for a prosthesis, according to the researchers.

Wireless power and telemetry system

For the new device, power is delivered wirelessly, from outside the body to the implant, through an inductive powering telemetry system. Data to the nanowires is sent over the same wireless link at record speed and energy efficiency. The telemetry system is capable of transmitting both power and data over a single pair of inductive coils, one emitting from outside the body, and another on the receiving side in the eye.**

Three of the researchers have co-founded La Jolla-based Nanovision Biosciences, a partner in this study, to further develop and translate the technology into clinical use, with the goal of restoring functional vision in patients with severe retinal degeneration. Animal tests with the device are in progress, with clinical trials following.***

The research was described in a recent issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering. It was funded by Nanovision Biosciences, Qualcomm Inc., and the Institute of Engineering in Medicine and the Clinical and Translational Research Institute at UC San Diego.

* For visual acuity of 20/20,  an electrode pixel size of 5 μm (micrometers) is required; 20/200 visual acuity requires 50 μm. The minimum number of electrodes required for pattern recognition or reading text is estimated to be about 600. The new nanoengineered silicon nanowire electrodes are 1 μm in diameter, and for the experiment, 2500 silicon nanowires were used.

** The device is highly energy efficient because it minimizes energy losses in wireless power and data transmission and in the stimulation process, recycling electrostatic energy circulating within the inductive resonant tank, and between capacitance on the electrodes and the resonant tank. Up to 90 percent of the energy transmitted is actually delivered and used for stimulation, which means less RF wireless power emitting radiation in the transmission, and less heating of the surrounding tissue from dissipated power.

These are primary cortical neurons cultured on the surface of an array of optoelectronic nanowires. Here a neuron is pulling the nanowires, indicating the the cell is doing well on this material. (credit: UC San Diego)

*** For proof-of-concept, the researchers inserted the wirelessly powered nanowire array beneath a transgenic rat retina with rhodopsin P23H knock-in retinal degeneration. The degenerated retina interfaced in vitro with a microelectrode array for recording extracellular neural action potentials (electrical “spikes” from neural activity).

Abstract of Towards high-resolution retinal prostheses with direct optical addressing and inductive telemetry

Objective. Despite considerable advances in retinal prostheses over the last two decades, the resolution of restored vision has remained severely limited, well below the 20/200 acuity threshold of blindness. Towards drastic improvements in spatial resolution, we present a scalable architecture for retinal prostheses in which each stimulation electrode is directly activated by incident light and powered by a common voltage pulse transferred over a single wireless inductive link. Approach. The hybrid optical addressability and electronic powering scheme provides separate spatial and temporal control over stimulation, and further provides optoelectronic gain for substantially lower light intensity thresholds than other optically addressed retinal prostheses using passive microphotodiode arrays. The architecture permits the use of high-density electrode arrays with ultra-high photosensitive silicon nanowires, obviating the need for excessive wiring and high-throughput data telemetry. Instead, the single inductive link drives the entire array of electrodes through two wires and provides external control over waveform parameters for common voltage stimulation. Main results. A complete system comprising inductive telemetry link, stimulation pulse demodulator, charge-balancing series capacitor, and nanowire-based electrode device is integrated and validated ex vivo on rat retina tissue. Significance. Measurements demonstrate control over retinal neural activity both by light and electrical bias, validating the feasibility of the proposed architecture and its system components as an important first step towards a high-resolution optically addressed retinal prosthesis.