Can a device really restore sight to the blind? That’s what physicians at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine are testing with the Orion cortical visual prosthesis from Second Sight Medical Products. With a name derived from the myth of Orion who went blind and regained his sight, can this technology live up to the hype?
Many think the eyes are solely responsible for creating the images they see every day. However, the eyes pick up signals and transmit them to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain, which decodes the information. In people who were born blind, the visual processing function doesn’t fully develop. However, people who lose their sight later in life have visual processing functions that perform just as well as they did before the acquired blindness.
The Orion visual prosthetic system works in patients who were able to see at some point, but lost eyesight later in life due to an eye injury or a disease like glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.
Researchers were hoping to find a way to stimulate the occipital lobe, or the visual part of the brain, and bypass the optic nerves entirely, and that’s just what they did with Orion. To set it up, a surgeon implants 60 electrodes in specific locations throughout the occipital lobe and connects them to a thumb-sized wireless receiver in the skull.
The user then wears a special pair of glasses equipped with a miniature video camera that captures images that are then fed directly to the brain. The Orion device does this by converting those images into a series of electrical pulses that transmit visual information to the receiver. The implanted device then activates specific electrodes in the exact areas of the brain that would experience stimulation through visual cues. Lastly, the electrode emits a signal, which the brain interprets as a dot of light.
Currently, users can see the general form of objects in proximity. One participant described the images he sees as something akin to grainy, black-and-white security footage. Researchers hope to create versions of Orion that produce richer pictures, but they recognize the need to place more electrodes for that to occur. Daniel Yoshor, MD, leader of the Orion trial at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of neurosurgery at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, has years of experience studying the neurophysiology of human visual perception and is hopeful about where this technology can lead.
“When people think of sight, they tend to think of the eyes, but in reality, the brain plays a significant role,” said Dr. Yoshor. “Using this device, we now have the ability to activate the part of the brain that handles sight. This is an exciting breakthrough in neuroscience and neurotechnology and brings us one step closer to restoring functional sight in the blind.”
Not only does the neurology and neurosurgery team at St. Luke’s Health offer the latest treatments, but they also continue to develop new, advanced therapies for a variety of neurological conditions. Schedule an appointment with a St. Luke’s Health neurologist to begin your healthcare journey with Houston’s leaders in neuroscience.
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