Local researchers developing artificial vision, bringing hope, light to those in darkness

Medical Watch

Think of the brain as a sophisticated image processor. But when the eyes and optic nerve aren’t functional, can science bypass the obstacles? An implant developed right here in Chicago may offer hope and light to those who live in total darkness. 

Illinois Institute of Technology lab looks like a workshop full of stitching and spinning.

Gold wire circles the perimeter of each device assembled. Combined, the tiny components have big promise. They’re designed to help the blind see … something.

It’s a challenge Dr Philip Troyk and his research team have been working on for 20-plus years.

“A person who is blind and doesn’t have information going from their eyes to their brain, we can bypass the eyes and the optic nerve and go directly to the brain,” he said.

Think of the system as a prosthesis aid for vision implanted directly into the brain. An external camera that mounts on a pair of glasses captures an image that is then transmitted to up to 40 implanted microstimulators.  The implants have multiple electrodes that stimulate neurons in the brain’s vision cortex.

“What we’re attempting to do is to tap into that image processor and send in signals that the brain can then interpret and then create a perception that is related to the image that comes from the camera,” Troyk said. “You can imagine the artificial vision … would be very crude but for a person who has no vision perception at all. It could be very useful as another visual aid that would work with other visual aids.”

Troyk started working on the project in 1996. The first human clinical trial of the intracortical visual prosthesis system — or ICVP — is set to begin in early 2022. Patients in the study will undergo a neurosurgical procedure to insert the devices into the brain.

“The tool is electrically activated and a little plunger pushes it out into the brain,” he said. “That is how the implantation is done.”

Mary Abramson is an advocate for the study and will serve as the liaison between participants and the research team.

“I think people are enthusiastic about it when they start to understand the potential,” she said.

More Information: Chicago Lighthouse website for ICVP

The ICVP might provide some contrast and help users spot obstacles and light along the way.

Abramson doesn’t qualify to participate in the research herself, but she has high hopes for those who might benefit from the technology.

“On the days I see truly nothing, just black, I feel like I’m in this little bubble,” she said. “But if I could at least see light or see shapes around me, that makes me feel like I can interact with them. And that means everything to the human being.”

The research team is hoping to enroll five volunteers in the study. The Chicago Lighthouse will serve as the hub for monitoring and testing those who participate. 

Janet Szlyk, PhD is president and CEO of The Chicago Lighthouse.

“We are breaking ground and 100 years from now when the prosthetics are standard, we will have been a part of that history making, groundbreaking work,” she said.

“We don’t know how far this can go,” Troyk said. “We want it to be more than an E on an eye chart. We eventually want it to be seeing a loved one’s face. And this project is to explore the very beginnings of that, to see how we might do something to improve quality of life because that is really what it is about.”

“I think this is a really historical event and historical breakthrough,” Abramson said.

Study participants must have had near normal vision as a child in order to enroll in the trial. That’s because the brain’s visual cortex needs to have developed to be capable of interfacing with the implantable system.

ICVP project is now recruiting five volunteers to receive the implanted ICVP system and participate in the FDA-approved clinical trial. Email ICVP@iit.edu or call (312) 567-5304

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