(This is an update on a previous article in Neuron News on the first successful visual prosthetic device.)It’s still primitive, but the work coming from the Dobelle Institute is providing critical proof-of-principle results that prosthetic devices integrated directly with our brain can replace lost function.
This article is written in a loose “story-telling” way, which lends itself not only to an enjoyable read, but you are able to quickly see into the excitement and difficulty of this sort of technological progress. Read through this article, and discover how a “plugged in” blind man can see again.
Well, the blind man still can’t really see exactly like people with “normal” vision. Instead, Dobelle’s patients have their brain retrain itself to interpret special stimuli generated from a computer chip based on information from a video camera. This stimuli is directly input into the patient’s brain via a series of connected wires.
The ability of the brain to quickly adapt to new inputs so that it can successfully function in its environment is one of the most amazing and most poorly understood features of our brain. Think that this “re-trainable feature” is crazy? Well, you can actually experience it yourself, as did the author in this article. You can read about how his own brain re-learned in a very short amount of time how to interpret new visual stimuli.
In the lab of Mark Humayun at the University of Southern California (see http://visionscience.usc.edu for more information), the author was given a special pair of computer-controlled glasses that distorted his vision. Through the special glasses the author could initially only see bright blobs of light. But, as the neurons in his brain began to work on these new inputs, his brain re-learned how to see!
Our brains are made up of dynamic squishy material. It is capable of many powerful and adaptable abilities, many of which we may never be able to personally experience. Trying on these glasses from Humayun’s lab would be an incredible experience, and I hope to have the opportunity to try them on myself someday!