Bionic Vision That Would Make Star Trek's Seven of Nine Proud
While the Star Trek legacy will always endure in the hearts of the show’s fans, it is also living on in an unexpected way. To replicate vision for the blind, scientists and developers have created apparatus that replace or stimulate parts of the visual imaging system, much like the vision enhancement devices worn by Star Trek characters Seven of Nine and Geordi La Forge. Although the string of hit series has come to an end, it would seem that the journey into electronically-assisted vision is just beginning…
“Spock, what does it mean?!” – Bionic Vision Defined
Blindness is often caused by flawed information transmission between components of the visual imaging system – primarily the retina, LGN (“lateral geniculate nucleus”), and primary visual cortex (“V1”). The imaging process begins at the pupil, which takes in light and transmits it to the retina. Retinal photoreceptor cells then send neural signals to the brain’s LGN. The LGN forwards the signals to the V1, the part of the brain in the back of the head that processes visual stimuli and produces a concrete image. By supplementing this system with electronic, mechanical, and computerized pieces, bionic vision apparatus imitate vision for the blind.
Ocular Bionic Vision Devices
Researchers have already manufactured numerous ocular bionic vision devices. One such device is video sunglasses, reminiscent of those worn by Geordi La Forge. These spectacles require no electrodes or surgery, since they morph camera images into sounds, which the wearer then decodes into meaningful “images” – an effect that essentially “feels” like vision.
Another device resembles the one worn by Seven of Nine; like hers, it requires implantation of electrodes into the retinas. These strategically-placed retinal implants stimulate nerve tissue and generate points of light. Then, like a game of neurological connect-the-dots, the mind’s eye connects the points of light into shapes.
While these devices represent astounding technological advances in the fight against blindness, each has its shortcomings. Wearers of non-surgical video sunglasses must form images out of sounds – a tricky task for a person with little to no visual framework to reference. Meanwhile, retinal implants may not work for people with extensive eye or retinal damage. Is there a solution that circumvents these problems?
“…A Dream That Became a Reality and Spread Throughout the Stars…” – Bionic Vision with Brain Implants
Recently, researchers have implanted electrodes into the LGN – a previously inaccessible area because of its location deep in the brain – through a tiny hole in the skull. These electrodes imprint camera or computer images directly onto the LGN. The LGN then transmits the images directly to the V1. Since they bypass retinal activity, LGN implants provide unadulterated visual transmission, and they may provide sight for patients with congenital blindness or extensive eye damage.
The Final Frontier?
Whether it will one day be possible to cure blindness with bionic implants, of course, remains to be seen. However, given the tireless efforts of scientists, researchers, and technicians to understand the brain and visual system, universal sight is one frontier we may eventually conquer.
Seven of Nine would likely approve.
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