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The next frontier for brain implants is computer vision

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The next frontier for brain implants is computer vision

Brian Bussard has 25 little chips in his brain. They were installed in February 2022 as part of a study testing a wireless device designed to produce rudimentary vision in blind people. Bussard is the first participant.

Bussard, 56, lost vision in his left eye at age 17 after his retina detached. He followed his right eye in 2016, leaving him completely blind. Remember the exact moment it happened. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” he says. Over time, he learned to adapt.

In 2021, he found out a test of a visual prosthesis at the Illinois Institute of Technology In Chicago. The researchers cautioned that the device was experimental and that you should not expect to regain the level of vision you had before. Still, he was intrigued enough to sign up. Thanks to the chips in his brain, Bussard now has very limited artificial vision: what he describes as “blips on a radar screen.” With the implant he can perceive people and objects represented with white, iridescent dots.

Bussard is one of the few blind people in the world who have risked brain surgery to obtain a visual prosthesis. In Spain, researchers from the Miguel Hernández University have implemented a similar system for four people. The essays are the culmination of decades of research.

There is also interest from the industry. California-based Cortigent is developing the Orion, which has been implanted in six volunteers. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is also working on a brain implant for vision. in a x publication In March, Musk said Neuralink’s device, called Blindsight, “is already working on monkeys.” He added: “The resolution will be low at first, like early Nintendo graphics, but eventually it can surpass normal human vision.”

That last prediction is unlikely, considering vision is such a complex process. There are enormous technical barriers to improving the quality of what people can see with a brain implant. However, even generating rudimentary vision could provide blind people with greater independence in their daily lives.

“This is not about recovering biological vision,” says Philip Troyk, a professor of biomedical engineering at Illinois Tech, who leads the study in which Bussard is involved. “It’s about exploring what computer vision could be.”

When light reaches the eye, it first passes through the cornea and lens, the outer and middle layers of the eye. When light reaches the back of the eye (the retina), cells called photoreceptors convert it into electrical signals. These electrical signals travel through the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets those signals as the images we see.

Without an intact retina or optic nerve, the eyes cannot communicate with the brain. This is the case for many people with total blindness. The types of devices Troyk and Neuralink are building bypass the eye and optic nerve entirely, sending information directly to the brain. Because of this, they have the potential to address any cause of blindness, whether due to eye disease or trauma.

The specific region of the brain that processes information received from the eyes is called the visual cortex. Its location at the back of the head makes it easily accessible for an implant. To place the 25 chips in Bussard’s brain, surgeons performed a routine craniotomy to remove a piece of her skull.

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