Development of the Bionic Eye
In collaboration with multiple research centers, through the Artificial Retina Project, researchers from Los Alamos participated in the production of the first bionic eye. The first bionic eye, named Argus II, was recently approved by the United States FDA (Food and Drug Administration). It will be used for patients suffering from either retinitis pigmentosa or sever AMD (age-related macular degeneration). Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare, inherited, degenerative eye disease that eventually causes severe vision impairment and even blindness. AMD is a medical condition which affects adult and elderly patients, consisting of vision loss in the macula, due to retinal damage. The research team from Los Alamos was part of the Advanced Concepts team of the Artificial Retina Project.
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Argus II operates through the use of a mini-camera mounted in a pair of eyeglasses. The camera captures images and sends the information to a microprocessor through wireless technology. The microprocessor, worn by the patient on a belt, further converts the images to electrical signals. These electrical signals reach the retina of the patient through an electrode array, which stimulates the optic nerve, and through the optic nerve, the stimuli reach the brain. Blind patients can be taught how to interpret these visual signals.
The research team examined the pathways through which visual data is encoded as electrical impulses. They managed to improve the visualization and interpretation of neural activity patterns derived from the stimulation of the retina. They used high-performance video cameras and infrared illumination in order to document the birefringence properties of the nervous tissue associated with the electrical stimulation of the retina, whilst also observing the small changes in the scattering of light. The research team from Los Alamos also advised the rest of the research consortium on the usage of technologies capable of mapping the human brain function.
Researchers developed a theory through which they managed to map the retinal function of patients by analyzing polarized light signals, produced by the nerve cells found in the retina. The method consisted in a computer generated model of the retina which is capable of predicting the function of retinal neurons as a result to different patterns of stimulation. Furthermore, the team managed to develop several theoretical models of nervous cells response to electric stimuli. Their models show results towards new strategies for further improvement of the bionic eye and the development of other therapies for the visually impaired patients.
The Artificial Retina Project is conducted by the United States Department of Energy. It consists of a collaborative work effort between national research laboratories (Los Alamos being one of them), national universities (from California, Utah and North Carolina) and private companies. The goal of the team is to develop an artificial eye capable of restoring at least limited vision, so that visually impaired patients would be able to read and recognize friendly faces. So far, researchers managed to develop an instrument that contains an array of micro-electrodes that are implanted in the eyes of patients suffering from forms of retinal disease.
A part of the funds for the Los Alamos laboratory is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, whilst the rest of the funds come from LDRD (Laboratory Directed Research & Development), NSF (National Science Foundation) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health).