Sheila Nirenberg and Chethan Pandarinath have invented a device that restores near-normal sight to blind mice.
The use of prosthetics is not a new one. Researchers have attempted to restore sight to the visually impaired, with varying degrees of success, for the past 30 years but Nirenberg's and Parandarinath's attempt to restore sight has come the closest.
Sheila Nirenberg, a professor and computational neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, and Chethan Pandarinath, a former Cornell graduate student currently conducting postgraduate research at Stanford University, found success using a different kind of prosthesis. Instead of implanting electrodes directly onto the retina, the prosthetic device takes images, codifies them, and translates them into something that the brain can understand.
As they explain in their article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, retinal diseases destroy the light-collecting photoreceptor cells on the retina's surface. But most patients retain capacity of their ganglion cells, which actually send the signals to the brain. The team theorized that, by activating those cells, it could restore sight to these patients.
This research could potentially change the lives for the majority of the 25 million people in the world affected with retinal degenerative diseases.
Though Nirenberg and Pandarinath are understandably ecstatic about the results of their work – which has taken 10 years, in Nirenberg's case – they caution that the results could be another five to seven years before they are applicable in humans. Other physicians, like Dr. John Sommer, an ophthalmology professor at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and the dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, are more measured in their enthusiasm for the device.
Dr. Sommer told Health Day that the research is probably not a game-changer, since people have been working on such a panacea for three decades. He also said that such drastic procedures may not even be as necessary; with the amount of technological advances that have taken place over the past five years, the amount of people who lose all or nearly all of their vision may simply decline.
Dr. Sommer may not just be raining on their parade. The device has shown astounding success in mice, but not all research that shows success in animals applies to humans.
Still, Nirenberg says that they hope to begin clinical trials in one to two years.