Brain implant helps blind woman recognize shapes, patterns, some letters
A brain implant that allows people with visual impairments to perceive shapes again is being tested by scientists at the Miguel Hernández University de Elche in Spain, the University of Utah in the United States, and the Dutch Brain Institute. The first person to receive this implant was 57-year-old Bernardeta Gómez, who suffered from a nerve disorder that caused her to become blind 16 years ago. This is the first technology of its kind to be applied to a blind person.
The implant is a plate containing 96 electrodes which connects to a pair of glasses acting as an artificial retina. When electrical stimulation was administered to the device, Gómez was able to recognize different shapes and patterns. The woman was even able to play a simplified version of the computer game, Pac-Man. Once her implant was disconnected from the system, her vision ceased again entirely.
Gómez received the implant three years ago. “We did not make much progress during the first three months, which was the [initial] time frame for the study, so I insisted that it be extended,” she told El Pais. “It was then that I began to perceive changes in intensity. I could see something like very luminous sequins and, as the parameters varied, I saw them in different degrees of intensity and size.”
The scientists activated the electrodes one by one as Gómez's brain acclimated to the system. “They made it more complex and I started to see narrow bars, wide bars, squares... and then I learned to distinguish patterns. I was able to perceive a human face and the face of a dog,” she said.
As the experiment progressed, she developed a 100-percent success rate when identifying patterns and shapes. During the sixth and final month of the experiment, she was able to identify the letters C, L, O and V about 70 percent of the time when just 16 of the electrodes were activated.
"It was a real experience, I have no words for it," she added. The scientists are not sure why they could not help her to see more than the four letters.
The Journal of Clinical Investigation published details of the study. In order for the system to be practical, the system would have to be developed to use a portable power supply, and wireless data. To improve sight further, a plate with more than a thousand electrodes could be needed.
Gómez was happy she was able to participate in the experiment, even if the restoration of a degree of her vision was only temporary. “It was very clear to me that I wasn’t going to recover my sight, but I feel a great personal satisfaction and that’s my compensation.”