Novel Brain Implant Restores Visual Perception to the Blind

With wireless device, patients can detect motion, distinguish light and dark

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(LOS ANGELES, California) – Of the nearly 39 million people worldwide who are legally blind, many were born sighted and lost their vision as adults, drastically altering their lives. Now researchers at UCLA Health have surgically implanted four blind patients with an innovative brain device that boosts users’ ability to navigate the world by restoring their ability to perceive objects and movement. 

Geared toward formerly sighted people who now live in complete blackness, the wireless device helps patients distinguish light from dark, enabling them to regain a measure of independence and complete daily tasks like sorting laundry or quickly finding and picking up items from a table. 

“This is the first time that we’ve had a completely implantable device that people can go home with and use in their own living conditions without having to be plugged into an external device,” said Dr. Nader Pouratian, a neurosurgeon at UCLA Health and principal investigator of the study. “It helps them recognize, for example, where a doorway is, where the sidewalk begins or ends or where the crosswalk is. These are all extremely meaningful events that can help improve their quality of life.”

Manufactured by Second Sight, the Orion device converts images captured by a tiny video camera mounted on sunglasses into a series of electrical pulses. The pulses stimulate a set of electrodes implanted on top of the brain’s visual cortex, which perceives patterns of light as visual cues.

“There are little white dots on a black background, like looking up at the stars at night,” said Jason Esterhuizen, the second person in the world to receive the device. “I might see three little dots as a person is walking toward me. As they get closer to me, more and more dots light up.”

The more Jason uses the device, the more he’s able to understand what each flicker of light represents. His descriptions also are helping UCLA researchers improve the technology. Pouratian hopes to expand the device’s capabilities and make adjustments that will allow more people to benefit from it, including those who were born blind or with low vision.

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Jason Esterhuizen, who lost his vision in a car accident, practices finding objects with his wife, Sumarie. A video camera on his glasses signals an experimental device in his brain, enabling him to distinguish light from dark.

Jason Esterhuizen, who is blind, describes what he sees to UCLA Health researchers. He is the world's second recipient of an experimental device that directly signals the brain, restoring his ability to perceive light and motion.

UCLA Health neurosurgeon Dr. Nader Pouratian points to an experimental device in the brain. The implant restores blind patients' ability to detect motion and light, increasing their independence and ease at navigating the world.

Researchers at UCLA Health use EEG to observe brain activity in Jason Esterhuizen. He is the world's second recipient of an experimental brain implant that helps blind people detect motion and distinguish light from dark.

Jason Esterhuizen walks near his Los Angeles home with his wife, Sumarie. Although he is blind, he is now able to follow the sidewalk, thanks to an experimental brain implant that enables him to distinguish light areas from dark.

An experimental device helps Jason Esterhuizen, who is blind, sort laundry. A video camera on a pair of sunglasses communicates with an implant in Jason’s brain, helping him to distinguish light objects from dark.

UCLA Health