(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.