BrainPort Device Lets Blind "See" with Their Tongues

Ok. This one got me twisted the first time I read it on the internet. It seems that scientists are currently developing a pair of sunglasses wired to an electric "lollipop" that really helps the visually impaired regain optical sensations via a different pathway.

Neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita hypothesized in the 1960s that "we see with our brains not our eyes." This new device trades on that thinking and aims to partially restore the experience of vision for the blind and visually impaired by relying on the nerves on the tongue's surface to send light signals to the brain.

About two million optic nerves are required to transmit visual signals from the retina—the portion of the eye where light information is decoded or translated into nerve pulses—to the brain's primary visual cortex.

The magic device is called BrainPort and is currently being developed by neuroscientists at Middleton, Wisc.–based Wicab, Inc.

How does it work?
Visual data are collected through a small digital video camera about 1.5 centimeters in diameter that sits in the center of a pair of sunglasses worn by the user. Bypassing the eyes, the data are transmitted to a handheld base unit, which is a little larger than a cell phone. This unit houses such features as zoom control, light settings and shock intensity levels as well as a central processing unit (CPU), which converts the digital signal into electrical pulses—replacing the function of the retina.

From the CPU, the signals are sent to the tongue via a "lollipop," an electrode array about nine square centimeters that sits directly on the tongue. Each electrode corresponds to a set of pixels. White pixels yield a strong electrical pulse, whereas black pixels translate into no signal. Densely packed nerves at the tongue surface receive the incoming electrical signals, which feel a little like Pop Rocks or champagne bubbles to the user.

It's not really clear at the moment whether the information is then transferred to the brain's visual cortex, where sight information is normally sent, or to its somatosensory cortex, where touch data from the tongue is interpreted, Wicab neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen says. "We don't know with certainty," she adds.

Using BrainPort it's just like riding a bike
Within 15 minutes of using BrainPort, blind people can begin interpreting spatial information via this amazing device, says William Seiple, research director at the nonprofit vision healthcare and research organization Lighthouse International. The electrodes spatially correlate with the pixels so that if the camera detects light fixtures in the middle of a dark hallway, electrical stimulations will occur along the center of the tongue.

"It becomes a task of learning, no different than learning to ride a bike," Arnoldussen says, adding that the "process is similar to how a baby learns to see. Things may be strange at first, but over time they become familiar."

Wicab will submit BrainPort to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval at the end of the month, says Robert Beckman, president and chief executive officer of the company. He notes that the device could be approved for market by the end of 2009 at a cost of about $10,000 per machine.
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