Medical implants restore sight to the blind

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

retina implant
An example of what a typical retina implant does.

Combining electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering knowledge, University of Arizona professor Wolfgang Fink is researching new designs for eye implants.  An implant is when a device is created to replace missing or damaged body parts.

Fink’s work is looking to improve electrical stimulation of the retina, which is a light-sensitive layer of tissue in our eyes that acts like the film in a camera.  Normally, as images go through the eye’s lens, they’re focused on the retina, which converts those images into electrical signals and sends them to our brain via the optic nerve. This whole process is what let’s us see.

“Current technologies and methods are far behind what can be done,” said Fink, who’s working with a research team to fashion a blend of super fast electrical pulses that will improve current retinal implant tech. The way retinal implants normally work is they use a bunch of electrodes – points through which electricity can flow – to stimulate the optic nerve in a way that’s similar to our retina.

While many companies just try to pack more electrodes into retinal implants to improve them, Fink says it’s not a numbers game. He says it’s about the method, and that he thinks current technology not only sends electrical pulses out way too slowly, but most of the electrodes are just sitting around unused. His ultra-fast implant picks up the pace and offers much better visual power.

The advances don’t stop at retinal implants either. “We believe this same methodology could work for all forms of neural stimulation,” explains Fink. “It could be applied to paralysis, deep brain stimulation, things like that. There are definitely some cool ideas to explore that go way beyond vision.”

Image of retina implant diagram courtesy of Retina Implant AG.