Blindness treatment in sight

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Researchers at the University of Glasgow have launched a project to challenge two of the most common forms of blindness in the UK.

Employing similar technology to that found in digital cameras, the scientists will build an electronic implant that they claim eventually would enable people who have become blind to see again.

Age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa cause blindness in around one million people in the UK. By implanting a microelectronic device into the eye, the team hopes to fool the brain into believing the retina is still in working order.

Dr Keith Matheson, who is leading the research, said that advances in microelectronics have allowed researchers to develop a retinal prosthesis, a small device that is attached to the retina itself. The device contains an image detector with hundreds of pixels coupled to an array of microscopic stimulating electrodes. The stimulated cells then send information via the optic nerve to the brain.

The team has developed a prototype, a 100 pixel-imaging device, with funding from the Royal Society and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. However, Matheson said this would not give enough detail, merely providing light as an indicator that the technology works. The goal is to now develop a 600 pixel detector, which would enable people to walk down the street and even recognise faces, providing blind people with a level of independence currently unavailable to them.

Matheson, however, is quick to dismiss any notion there will be a miracle operation in the near future. He said it is an extremely challenging area to work in, which, although utilising standard semiconductor techniques, is dealing with chips at the micron level. Consequently, while a first human implant has been mooted within five years, Matheson believes 10 years is a more realistic time frame.