Blind World

Artificial Vision.
Engineer leads quest for restoring sight to blind.

December 28, 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times.

The restoration of vision to the blind is, literally, in sight. That's the conviction of an Illinois Institute of Technology researcher who is quietly leading what is arguably the world's most advanced studies in the artificial rehabilitation of vision, known in the ophthalmological field as Intra-Cortical Visual Prosthesis.

Phil Troyk says that his research team has made significant progress in animal testing of electronic transmission of images into the cortex, bypassing the entire optical system. He's hopeful that in the next three to five years, human testing can begin, and that within 10 to 15 years, vision can be restored to the blind.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Chicago-based scientist is that he isn't a medical doctor at all, but has an electronics background. A Chicago native, he earned a master's degree and doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Illinois, then became an adviser to Northrop Corp. Defense Systems division, and later a consultant to the National Institutes of Health.

Joining IIT in 1983 and advancing to professor of bioengineering, he focused his energies on electronic vision prosthesis. Since 1996, he has been heading a team of 30 researchers at six labs based at IIT; University of Chicago; Huntington Medical Research at Pasadena, Calif., and EIC Laboratories in Norwood, Mass.

Troyk's project is based on the principle that visual images can be transmitted directly to electrodes implanted in the brain, and these in turn can translate into recognizable form. In animal tests, the subjects are placed in a darkened room and view a computer that presents key images that stimulate a task.

When the animal performs the task in reaction, a reward is given. After weeks of this routine, the computer is turned off and, in a totally darkened room -- simulating blindness -- the very same images are sent electronically to electrodes implanted in the animal's cortex. By the animal's performance of the identical tasks, researchers can confirm that the images were, in fact, "seen" by the brain.

"The concept isn't new by any means," says Troyk. "It dates back to the 1960s, when British researcher Giles Brindley first began experiments with implanted electrodes. Our microchip technology has advanced to where we can now implant up to 250 electrodes, and soon 1,000 -- in the cortex.

"We're encouraged by what Choclear Corp. of Australia has done in auditory implants that are now so successful in hearing restoration that a worldwide market has resulted.

"Our biggest current hurdle is helping the brain interpret the impulses," Troyk says. "This will enable the subject to not just recognize light and dark forms but gradations, motion and color."

Then why is human testing still a few years away?

"Even though we have volunteers on a waiting list," he says, "we will not ask a human to put himself at risk with brain surgery until we're totally confident of the efficacy of this concept through animal tests."

One independent note of optimism comes from Dr. Joseph Rizzo, professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and head of Boston VA Hospital's Center for Innovative Visual Rehabilitation. "The hope of creating a visual prosthesis can't be realized without the input of engineers, and Phil has brought exceptional engineering talent to this biological field," Rizzo says. "His project is the only one of its kind, and I feel it has good potential to succeed."

Troyk made major headway in early research funded by only $500,000 in private grants before winning a $3.6 million grant from the NIH. He sees another $3 million to $5 million necessary to invest before human testing begins.

However, the payoff for humanity could be enormous. The National Eye Institute says that more than 1 million Americans over age 40 are blind, and another 2.4 million are visually impaired. It predicts that these numbers will double over the next 30 years as baby boomers age.

"Our holy grail is restoring full vision," Troyk says. "Our only competition is the guide dog and the cane. I'm convinced that eventually blindness victims will be walking around with a tiny camcorder in their glasses, shooting 60 frames per second and sending pixeled data into the cortex.

"This is an exciting time for us. How often does a scientist have an opportunity to work on a quest this vast? For a blind person to see a human face -- to see his grandchild again -- is perhaps the ultimate blessing."

And of course, predictably, he says, "One man recently asked me: 'Could this improve my golf game?'"

Ted Pincus is a finance professor at DePaul and an independent communications consultant and journalist.

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