Almost $1 million contributed to bionic eye project

The Federal Government has awarded almost $1 million in funding to support the development of a business plan for bionic vision technology.

An investment of $924,100 has been made towards the Cortical Frontiers: Commercialising Brain Machine Interfaces project currently underway at Monash University, which is headed by Professor Arthur Lowery of the Department of Electrical and Computer Systs Engineering.

The project has received funding under the government’s new Medical Research Future Fund: Frontier Health and Medical Research Program.

The project aims to restore vision by sending images to the brain via a wireless receiver located at the back of the head, similar to a cochlear coil. Power and data is transmitted to a number of implants that sit on the surface of the brain. Attached to these implants are electrodes, which penetrate the cortex and use electrical stimulation to send information to the brain.

Speaking to Insight, Lowery said that because the system bypasses the majority of the optical system, such as the eyeball and optic nerve, the treatment might be suitable for someone who has lost their eye. Also, since the implant bypasses the fovea, the system could have a better resolution than other systems.

“There are around 500 square millimetres of the brain dedicated to foveal vision. And therefore, if we put in an array of electrodes into the brain evenly spaced at 1 millimetre, we should get quite a high number where the foveal vision is. Whereas if you did the same thing with the eyeball, you’d only get one, two or three electrodes at that spacing in the fovea.”

Lowery also said that the image a patients ‘sees’ might not necessarily be what the camera, which is attached to a pair of glasses, sees.

“For example, it could have a meeting mode where it could represent people’s faces by emoticons, or it could have a navigation mode that looks for where the carpet is, or routes around the city.”

He went on to explain that getting the maximum amount of useful information to a person, rather than an image limited by size or detail, is a relatively new way of thinking.

“Computer scientists are into segmentation which is if you have an image, how does the brain separate images out and say ‘that’s a person standing in front of a bookshelf in a room with a window looking outside’? How do you divide an image up into its physical parts and then represent those physical parts?”

Computer scientists working on driverless cars are currently facing similar challenges.

The funding will be used for the development of two business cases for the brain-stimulating technology, and is part of the Federal Government’s $570 million Frontiers initiative designed to help researchers bring their ideas to market.

Lowery said one of the two cases is likely to be for vision, but the other could one of several other potential applications like treating epilepsy and depression, or controlling prosthetic limbs.

“We also have some technology for recording brain waves and brain signals, so you could use the recording of the motor region of the brain to drive a prosthetic, and then use sensory parts to provide some feedback.”

The project is currently in its manufacturing stage, and Lowery added that first-in-human trials would still be some time away. However, the grant has the potential to unlock between $50 million and $100 million in additional funding if the business development plan is successfully approved.

“That would be really exciting because it would allow us to set up an Australian manufacturing and industry base for electronics in the body, with an initial focus on electronics and the brain,” Lowery said.

IMAGE CAPTION: (from left) Professor Arthur Lowery, Health Minister Greg Hunt, Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Vice Chancellor of Monash University and Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld AC, Professor of Surgery. Image supplied by Monash University.

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