Now I See You

November 18, 2010

A new technique allows researchers to take a grayscale image (top left), encode it (top right), and transmit it to the brain with far less loss in fidelity (bottom left) than the standard method allows (bottom right). (Sheila Nirenberg)

Weill Cornell Medical College researchers have built a new type of prosthetic retina that enabled blind mice to see nearly normal images. It could someday restore detailed sight to the millions of people who’ve lost their vision to retinal disease.

They used optogenetics, a recently developed technique that infuses neurons with light-sensitive proteins from blue-green algae, causing them to fire when exposed to light.

The researchers used mice that were genetically engineered to express one of these proteins, channelrhodopsin, in their ganglion cells. Then, they presented the mice with an image that had been translated into a grid of 6,000 pulsing lights. Each light communicated with a single ganglion cell, and each pulse of light caused its corresponding cell to fire, thus transmitting the encoded image along to the brain.

In humans, such a setup would require a pair of high-tech spectacles, embedded in which would be a tiny camera, an encoder chip to translate images from the camera into the retinal code, and a miniature array of thousands of lights. When each light pulsed, it would trigger a channelrhodopsin-laden ganglion cell. Surgery would no longer be required to implant an electron array deep into the eye, although some form of gene therapy would be required in order for patients to express channelrhodopsin in their retinas.