Helping The Blind To See With The Mind’s Eye

If you close your eyes now and imagine an elephant, then your mind is probably not going to be blank. In fact, chances are what you ‘see’ will be remarkably close to, unsurprisingly, an elephant. That might all sound like a fairly obvious point, but neuroscientists at the University of Texas think it could well be the future of allowing the blind to see.

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Of course, being able to imagine that elephant in all its elephanty glory requires us to have seen the real thing at some point in our lives, but the team comprised of researchers at the Health Science Centre and Baylor College of Medicine think that they can get around this with a special pair of glasses which bypass the eyes to create a visual prosthetic.

Stimulating the ‘mind’s eye’
Such a device is predicted to work by feeding webcam information directly to a chip nestled into the visual cortex in the brain – the area colloquially known as the ‘mind’s eye’. From here, the data sent through the camera is recreated by the chip and displayed in the head exactly like that imaginary elephant.

The team published their study in Neuroscience; where they said that they’d successfully created a flash of light in the mind known as a ‘phosphene’ by using small electrical charges to kick the brain into action. Creating an entire phosphene elephant is quite a long way off yet – it’s predicted that 27 phosphenes would be required to create the illusion of the basic outline of a letter – but the very fact that it’s worked at all means that a lot of the hard work is over.

While performing the studies on three participants being treated for epilepsy, the team found that stimulating the brain with electrical charges only resulted in phosphenes firing if there was also activity in a region of the brain called the temporoparietal junction – a region known to play a vital role in self-other distinction and, if damaged, out of body experiences.

The team themselves say that a big obstacle in the way of future development is that in truth we still know relatively little about the way that our brains work. Whilst this study marks a significant step in the right direction, there is a lot more research needed to fully understand the link between cognitive activity and visual perception, and until this becomes clearer there is still a lot of work to do.

Rob writes for glasses online specialists Direct Sight.

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