It might sound like something out of Blade Runner.
But science is getting closer to the idea of allowing the blind to see again – without using their eyes.
Researchers are developing a high-tech pair of glasses with an integrated camera that sends images wirelessly to the brain.
The gadget bypasses the nerves between the eyes and the brain, which are damaged in most cases of blindness.
A team of Dutch experts are experimenting with it in Eindhoven, which has been described as “the place to be” when it comes to blindness research.
Similar technology was backed by legendary American musician Stevie Wonder who lost his sight as a baby.
A number of experimental therapies and gadgets for incurable blindness have emerged over the past decade amid medical advances.
Among those currently underway are bionic eyes being tested in the US and UK, and a trial using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to cure genetic blindness.
This graphical representation gives an idea of how the glasses would work in practice
Stevie Wonder, now 71, who made hits such as ‘Superstition’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ went blind shortly after birth and was impressed with glasses similar to the current ones of development
How do the glasses work?
What is the technology behind the glasses?
A built-in camera takes a picture of the object, place or person a blind person wants to identify.
A computer inside the glasses then processes the image which is then transmitted wirelessly using radio waves.
A transmitter placed under the skin of the blind person near the neck/skull then picks up this signal.
The signal is then converted into electrical messages which are sent through more than 1,000 electrodes connected to the blind person’s visual cortex.
These electrical messages activate parts of the brain that would normally process similar information from the eyes, creating an image that a blind person can see.
Where is it developed?
In the Nederlands.
Who works there?
A consortium of Dutch research organizations is working on the project, called NESTOR.
It includes scientists from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, University of Twente, Radboud University, Maastricht University and Eindhoven University of Technology.
What stage are the glasses at?
The scientists tested the implant on blind monkeys which the scientists involved said were able to recognize “figures, moving objects and lines”.
They are now working on trying to increase the number of electrodes in the implant to improve image quality.
How much will it cost?
Unknown but similar technology in the US would cost £110,000.
The latest glasses are being developed as part of the NESTOR project, which aims to develop a “neuroprosthesis”, a device capable of generating visual images in the brain.
A consortium of Dutch institutions, including Eindhoven University of Technology, is working on the project.
glasses work by taking photos using a built-in one-click camera.
The images are then transmitted wirelessly to a tiny chip fitted to the visual cortex of a blind person using a combination of radio waves similar to those used by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.
The process is similar to the natural signals the eyes send to that part of the brain that used to be part of our sense of sight.
This part of the brain normally translates messages received by the eye into images, but researchers think it’s possible to replicate this by using tiny electrodes to stimulate brain cells.
Scientists have yet to test their implant in humans, but lab tests and experiments in monkeys show promise.
The developers hope their wireless model will overcome some of the shortcomings of previous implants, which were directly connected to the glasses, thus risking infection.
No release date or potential cost has been released, but similar technology in the US costs around £110,000, which excludes surgery to fit a chip.
Adedayo Omisakin, a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology, is part of a two-man division working specifically on the wireless implant for four years.
He said that by bypassing the eye and going straight to the brain, the technology could tackle the root cause of blindness for most people living with disabilities.
“Many blind people have damaged nerves between the eyes and the brain, so our only option is to stimulate the visual cortex directly,” he said.
He added that transmitting this data wirelessly would bring many benefits to the lives of blind people.
“This not only prevents infections in the brain region from occurring, but also makes patients much more mobile,” he said.
Mr Omisakin said the current version of the chip consists of a staggering total of 1,024 electrodes, split into 16 different groups that would send electrical signals to different parts of the visual cortex creating an image.
Multi-Grammy award-winning musician Stevie Wonder was reportedly ‘enthusiastic’ about a version of the glasses, made by the company Envision, which takes pictures with a camera and describes them then audibly to the wearer, giving blind people more independence.
Scientists hope to one day develop glasses that could help blind people regain their sight. This technology used to be in the realm of science fiction, as is the case with the character Geordi La Forge (played by LeVar Burton) in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The implant’s primary transmitter would be located under the skin at the back of the neck with wires then connected to the visual cortex.
“That way, we won’t have any unnecessary skull-induced signal loss,” he said.
Through rigorous testing, scientists have succeeded in reducing power consumption to less than one milliwatt, several thousand times less than the power used in even a low-energy light bulb.
Power consumption is a critical hurdle to overcome, Mr. Omisakin said.
Previous attempts to install similar chips in the brains of blind people have led to patients having seizures as electricity courses through their skulls.
Blind patients see their families again thanks to gene-editing CRISPR therapy
Blind patients were able to recognize their family members for the first time in years after volunteering for a pioneering gene-editing experiment.
Michael Kalberer, 43, and Carlene Knight, 54, both suffer from an incurable eye disease that robbed them of their vision as adults.
In 2021, they were among seven patients who allowed scientists to edit their DNA by injecting them with the gene-editing tool CRISPR.
Although their vision has not been fully restored, they are able to see colors, navigate hallways, and distinguish silhouettes.
Mr Kalberer, from Long Island, revealed he was able to recognize loved ones on the dance floor at his cousin’s wedding, something that had been impossible for years.
The couple signed up to receive the experimental treatment at Oregon Health and Science University in May.
It was the first time that CRISPR – which has shown promise in treating conditions such as sickle cell disease – has been used to alter a person’s genes inside their body.
Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience are also involved in the project and have tested the chips on monkeys.
Mr Omisakin said the monkeys were able to recognize “figures, moving objects and lines”, although he added that further testing was needed to see if the quality of the images could be improved.
“The number of electrodes must eventually increase further if we want to have images of usable quality,” he said.
Mr Omisakin added that he could see the technology being ready for widespread use for people who are blind within the next decade.
There have been many breakthroughs in blindness gadgets in recent years, but none are widely available yet.
The brain implants were already tested in the United States by the company Second Sight in 2019.
The resulting footage was described as 1980s-style “grainy security footage” and could only be used for a few hours a day.
But participants said being able to see a semblance of their loved ones in real time was “impressive”.
Patients needed six months to adjust to the implants in order to be ready to receive signals from the camera.
People can currently request to be fitted with the latest version of Second Sight’s technology, with the company claiming to have fitted more than 350 people with their devices to date.
Second Sight does not publish the cost of these devices, saying it depends on a person’s medical condition and insurance plan, but reports suggest they cost around £110,000 ($150,000). , excluding surgery.
Other similar technologies, like the one fitted in the eye of an 88-year-old British grandmother earlier this year, bypass the brain altogether, instead installing an implant in the eye itself to help treat images.
And a completely different technology has used gene therapy to restore some or most vision in some blind patients by regrowing and replacing damaged tissue in the eyes.
Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder was reportedly impressed with a pair of high-tech glasses developed by Dutch start-up Envision, which he tried on at a tech show in the United States in March.
These glasses, like those in the NESTOR project, use a camera but instead of transmitting the information to the brain, an AI program inside the glasses interprets the image and audibly describes it to the wearer.