Progress towards bionic eye implants

Silicon nanowires and wireless technology combine to produce potential high-resolution implant to restore sight. Bionic eye technology has long lagged behind the science fictional portrayal. Although some progress has been made towards restoring sight using electronics and implants, the level of sight they can produce is still well below the accepted threshold for blindness.

Engineers at the University of California – San Diego and a La Jolla-based start-up company called Nanovision Biosciences now report that they have developed new technology that directly stimulates retinal cells to potentially restore high resolution sight that has been lost owing to neurodegenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and loss of sight owing to diabetes: all major causes of blindness in humans, affecting millions of people around the world and currently with no effective treatment. Although the technology is some years away from human trials, animal models have given encouraging results, the team states.

“We want to create a new class of devices with drastically improved capabilities to help people with impaired vision,” said Gabriel Silva, professor in bioengineering and ophthalmology at UC San Diego.

Two technologies are key to the system. Firstly, an array of silicon nanowires detects light and electrically stimulates retinal cells. These are bundled into a grid of electrodes whose density approaches that of the light-sensitive cells in the retina. This grid is implanted behind the retina and links up to the other key technology – a wireless device that transmits both power and data with high efficiency, using an inductive charge-transfer system that works on the same basis as wireless charging of  electronic devices or electric vehicles. The wireless signal also times the stimulation of the retinal cells. The team claims that 90% of the energy transmitted by the system is delivered to the implant and used for stimulation.

“To restore functional vision, it is critical that the neural interface matches the resolution and sensitivity of the human retina,” said Gert Cauwenberghs, a professor of bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and senior author of a paper detailing the research published in the Journal of Neural Engineering. Cauwenberghs led the team that developed the inductive charging and data transfer system, which was part funded by inductive charging specialist and major semiconductor company Qualcomm.

Unlike other bionic visual systems, the team’s device does not need a camera outside the body, although one of the coils for the inductive system is outside the body – the other is implanted in the eye. This advance results from the dual action of the silicon nanowires.

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engineering precision


March 22, 2017



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