Scientists at Okayama University report progress creating prosthetic technology that stimulates degenerated retinal tissues. According to the CDC, nearly 10 million people in the U.S. currently suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) or diabetic retinopathy, the two most common causes of retinal degeneration. The rising percentage of older people in the U.S. and the tragic incidence of type 2 diabetes mean that the number of people who will gradually lose their vision due to degenerated retinas could increase significantly over the next 20 to 30 years.

In a study published in Advanced Biomedical Engineering, Okayama University researchers reported success in stimulating degenerated retinal tissues with OURep, a photoelectric dye-coupled thin-film device. The scientists create OURep by melting the polymer polyethylene between two aluminum plates. The team then couple the polymer film with photoelectric dye to create the photoelectric film.

In the report of their study, the engineers described how electrical signal waves appear on the film in the presence of flashing light. When the team placed the film on top of retinal tissues of rats with retinal dystrophy — tissue which otherwise did not react to light exposure — the exposure successfully induced electric signals.

The Okayama researchers continue to work on OURep. Next steps include implanting the device and testing visual improvements with animals. Retinal implants for humans may be years away, but the work in the University labs gives hope to people with retinal diseases.