Devices, Technology

Gene therapy and implants combine in groundbreaking bionic eye design

An ambitious bionic eye project promises to help age-related macular degeneration patients see again using an innovative combination of smartglasses, gene therapy and brain implants.

Researchers at the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University have detailed their design for a syst that captures and transmits visual information to the brain via genetically-altered photoreceptors.

The project’s goal is to restore a patient’s central vision to the same level of visual acuity as a healthy individual. To this end, the team’s recent work has discovered it is possible to stimulate the brain with visual information at a specific point in the neural pathway, without stimulating unwanted neurons.

Called OBServ, the system has two main components. The first is the use of gene therapy to alter the optic nerves at the point where they first connect with the centre of the brain. These cells are turned into photoreceptors, allowing them to be stimulated with light by a tiny video projector installed inside the brain.

The second is monitoring the effect stimulation has on the neurons in order to make real-time adjustments and account for the natural variability present in the system. To achieve this, the team plans to make the neurons in the visual cortex bioluminescent through further genetic alteration, allowing their activity to be read with a colour camera.

Tethering these two elements together is a combination camera/projector implant, which receives input from camera-equipped glasses worn by the patient. The team believes the development of the implant will be reasonably straightforward compared to the rest of the project.

“The OBServ technology will likely only provide a window of vision smaller than the size of an adult thumbnail when held at arm’s length,” Dr Stephen Macknik, professor of ophthalmology, neurology, physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, said.

A finished device is not expected soon; the project is still several years away from completion.