The current aids for people with degenerative diseases of the retina are limited, even though about twenty million people worldwide suffer from such diseases as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. However, a study at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, led by neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg and Chethan Pandarinath, may prove that scientists have finally cracked the code on how the retina sends signals to the brain.
The study, presented at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, had created a device that was used on blind mice that helped diseased retinas send signals to the brain. Nirenberg and her team first cracked the code the mouse retina used to communicate with the brain by studying how healthy eyes translated the light received by the retina into something the brain could understand. By monitoring this process, the team was then able to create special glasses that created a similar code, through light-sensitive proteins and electric impulses, to be delivered to the eye. The brain could then interpret these impulses as images.
“What this shows is that we have the essential ingredients to make a very effective prosthetic,” Nirenberg added. While not yet tested on humans, the code has been assembled for monkeys. Nirenberg believes the technology will be ready for humans within one or two years. Researchers within the field believe Nirenberg too.
Nirenbeg’s technology will not only help millions of sight-impaired people, but also provide a solution for a disease that is the leading cause of blindness in people over 55 and one that may triple in incidence by 2025, according to a 2009 report by the American Optometric Society. As Aude Oliva, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology principal investigator, told Bloomberg, the research is “basically giving vision back to a system that doesn’t work … I’ve never seen, and other people have never seen, this quality.”