Cyborg vision

One of the touchstones for futurists is science fiction, and for many, the Star Trek television series in all their iterations presented worlds that could be. In Star Trek: Next Generation, Geordi La Forge (played by LeVar Burton) was blind, but he could see with the aid of a visor that connect to contacts at his temples. Thanks to researchers from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) a Harvard Medical School, we may see Geordi’s visor become a reality

The concept is that we might be able to help blind people see by stimulating the vision portions of their brain. Experiments have been done with implanted electrodes, but these eventually fail because scar tissue builds up, separating them from the brain’s nerve tissues. What is needed is a less-invasive means of stimulating specific nerves, and that’s what these researchers have done. If you connect an electrical source to a wire, you create an electrical current in the wire. However, you can also create a current in the wire by placing a coil that creates a magnetic field around the wire. This field can induce electrons in the wire to move, creating a current. This is called “induction” and is the principle behind generators and hand-cranked flashlights.

The researchers have found that placing tiny “microcoils” in proximity to nerves in the brain, the nerves can be stimulated. By controlling the alignment and arrangement of the coils, specific areas of the brain can be targeted for stimulation. The magnetic fields are not block by the body’s tissues, and can be safely encapsulated without diminishing their performance. This means that that can be encased in biocompatible materials to reduce the risk of rejection by the body’s immune system.

They experimented with loops that were only 50 by 100 microns (smaller than a grain of sand) and 10 microns thick (one tenth as thick as a human hair). In tests with mice, they were able to cause a mouse’s whiskers to twitch by stimulating a portion of the brain. The key advantage of this technology is that it does not have to be implanted inside the brain, but rather the stimulation devices can be “installed” on the surface of the brain which is much less invasive. It’s possible to see how this technology might be able to not only provide stimulation of the vision portion of the brain to create artificial eyesight, but might also be useful in addressing other brain-body impairments.