Eduardo Fernández Jover has spent years looking for ways to improve the quality of life of the blind. The latest venture of this researcher is a microchip that serves as a link between the brain and the sick eye to improve its mobility and orientation.
SPAIN – Neuroprostheses, cognitive neuroscience and bilingualism are some of the issues that have been addressed in the ninth Cajal Winter Conference, organized by the Spanish Society of Neuroscience (SENC) between 25 and 27 April. Among the speakers, Eduardo Fernández Jover, director of the Biomedical Neuroengineering Group at the University Miguel Hernandez, presented the advances in visual neuroprostheses, a device that until recently has only been conceived in science fiction movies.
How can you generate artificial vision?
The light passes through the transparent parts of the eyeball -cornea, crystalline- and reaches the retina. There it is transformed into signals that the nervous system and understands that travel through the optic nerve to the occipital part of the brain that processes vision. Now several groups are trying to create an electronic device that gets interact with the retina from the brain.
What kind of device would it be, glasses?
No, it’s a sort of microchip that is placed in the brain, which is the one that sends electrical signals to the eye depending on the environment around us. In addition, we are also working on an artificial retina that encodes visual information in a manner similar to the eye.
Any artificial retina vision which someone can recover completely?
Retrieving a complete picture, with colors, shades and textures, today, it is impossible. The aim is to restore functional vision to carry out orientation, mobility or even read large letters using a computer. This is feasible. We talk about a device that recovers a fairly limited but useful vision.
What problems arise when the device is tested outside the lab?
The truth is that there are enough. Therefore, you must first validate the technology; show that it works in humans is not just the short term. In addition, it is imperative that this device is safe, do not induce other disorders or pathologies. We still have a long way to go. We already have preliminary tests of biocompatibility in humans who have implanted microchips in their brains. At the moment, it is fairly well tolerated.
How is microchip implanted in human brains?
So far we have worked with patients who, because of illness, require a neurosurgical intervention and a craniotomy. It is placed before the surgeon proceeds to remove it. This process only adds five to ten minute operation and has no contraindications for the patient.
Will these devices be accessible to all or a luxury therapy?
The idea is to design a treatment that actually improves the quality of life of blind people. In collaboration with the ONCE and some hospitals we are doing everything possible to make it affordable, while complying with all legal and medical requirements. It should not be a luxury product. The more people benefit from it, the better.
What other projects is your group working on?
We are working on another project in optogenetics to help the blind. If the visual prosthesis talked to promote electrical stimuli, this work is about something more physiological. In many degenerative diseases of the retina cells channel by circulating visual information die. We wonder what would happen if we put those channels to the remaining healthy cells. In animal experiments we have seen that vision can be recovered with this technique. Through gene therapy in cells we transformed blind light sensitive material. This could help people with degenerative retinal disorders in early stages and in the future, it could be applied at any level of the disease.
Can you set an approximate release date of these devices?
You cannot project an exact time. Preliminary results are positive but we go step by step. Today, the greatest benefit for a person who is blind is to go to ONCE and use tools that offer them rehabilitation.
Is it possible for the research to end up in failure?
Society must know that it is working well, slowly and steadily, but if we are not cautious it can cause harm. We are trying to people with serious problems. Therefore, it is important to confirm the safety of this technology: it does not hurt that is biocompatible and useful in the long term. It is crucial not to create false expectations. It is not going to be available after tomorrow.