Blind World

Device tests for eye damage: Blind may see with implants.

November 20, 2004.

By Kimm Groshong,
Staff Writer,
Whittier Daily News.

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE -- The cameralike systems astronauts rely on most heavily during critical phases of space flight, including spacecraft inspection after launch, are not high-tech. They're the astronauts' own eyes. And there are several conditions in space that could damage those valuable organs, such as heightened ultraviolet light exposure and elevated pressure on the eyes.

A simple and fast software- based test that could serve as an autonomous diagnostic ophthalmologist in space would therefore be a valuable asset for astronauts, said Wolfgang Fink, a researcher from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech and USC at a public lecture Thursday night at JPL.

But astronauts are not the only ones who stand to benefit from such technology, Fink said.

The system he and his colleagues have developed checks peripheral vision in a nontraditional way, decreases testing time and is more thorough than currently used tests, he said.

The output from the new test is a three-dimensional depiction of an individual's visual field, which reveals a tell-tale shape, slope and extent of any eye defects.

By compiling a database of such results, the technology "could lead to what I would call an autonomous physician,' Fink said.

Later in the lecture, Fink posed the question, is blindness from diseases such as macular degeneration irreversible? He said the answer is "not necessarily.'

At USC's Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems center he and his colleagues, including several from Caltech, have created a system designed to help blind people see. The system involves an external camera and processing unit and an implanted electrode that can stimulate the retina in the eye, translating to images in the optical cortex of the brain.

So far, the team has implanted six patients, some of whom have been blind for more than 50 years, for clinical testing. At this point the system is very simple, providing only a vague sense of what lies before the camera. But going forward, the team's goal is to enhance the image several times.

The system allows the patient to see a black-and-white image of 4-pixel-by-4-pixel resolution. Once the resolution gets up to 32 by 32 pixels, an implantee would be able to recognize people.

Fink said even 16-by-16 pixel units are at least 10 years away from common usage. But his diagnostic test method should be available on the Internet much sooner. The first report of its results has already been accepted by a ophthalmology journal for publication.

Kimm Groshong can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at .

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