Researchers at MIT have developed a microchip that could enable blind people to regain some level of vision.
Scientists said that using wireless technology, eyeglasses equipped with a camera, and the chip, they should someday be able to restore at least some vision to people who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, two of the leading causes of blindness.
At this point, the technology is not expected to restore normal vision, but MIT said it should provide the ability to navigate around a room or walk down a sidewalk.
"Anything that could help them see a little better and let them identify objects and move around a room would be an enormous help," said Shawn Kelly, a researcher in MIT's Research Laboratory for Electronics, in a statement. "If they can recognize faces of people in a room, that brings them into the social environment as opposed to sitting there waiting for someone to talk to them."
Researchers have completed work on a prototype of the chip and expect to start testing the technology in blind people within three years. So far, the chips have been tested on miniature pigs, which have roughly the same size eyeballs as humans, MIT said. The tests did not calculate whether the pigs responded to stimulation of their optic nerves. Instead, they focused on how long the implants remained functional and whether they caused any damage to the eye.
Scientists said they expect that the prototype technology can remain safely implanted for up to 10 months. Eventually, they hope to improve the chip to the point where it can remain implanted for 10 years.
The chip, which is designed to be attached to the eyeball, would pick up images sent from the camera and electrically stimulate the nerve cells that normally carry visual input from the retina to the brain. The chip is sealed in a titanium case to keep water from leaking in and damaging its circuitry.
The MIT announcement shows off the latest research effort to build chips for medical applications.
For example, MIT last year announced that a research team there had designed a new energy-efficient chip that may one day be able to run implantable medical devices that use human body heat as an energy source. The new chip design is expected to consume 10 times less power than traditional chips.
Also last year, University of Texas researchers said they had developed a silicon chip that could more quickly and accurately diagnose heart attacks. Dubbed a nano-bio-chip, it's designed to analyze the protein biomarkers in human saliva, which indicate whether a person is healthy or having a heart attack.
And Justin Rattner, chief technology officer and a senior fellow at Intel, told Computerworld that perhaps as early as 2012 the line between human and machine intelligence will begin to blur. Nanoscale chips or machines will move through our bodies, fixing deteriorating organs or unclogging arteries. Sensors will float around our internal systems, monitoring our blood sugar levels and heart rates and alerting doctors to potential health problems.