By Russell de Pina.
Eurweb.com - Los Angeles,CA,USA.
April 6, 2006.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column on the efforts of researchers developing new technologies for restoring sight to patients suffering from certain kinds of blindness. At the heart of that story was the work of one researcher in particular who developed a device that worked by essentially jacking into a patient's brain to stimulate the cognitive centers of the brain.
One obvious problem with that technique was the potential of turning the patient into a chef's salad if the device was not calibrated correctly. According to a report from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale, FL there has been some remarkable progress made in alternative methods for getting artificially generated video input to the brain in order to restore vision.
One such advancement being presented at this year's gathering is the work of the Boston Retinal Implant Project, an MIT research project to develop a retinal prosthesis comprised of a plate of electrodes attached to the eye which is used to stimulate the optic nerve in order to create vision. The electrodes themselves are stimulated with video input from eyeglasses worn by the patient. The connection between the implant and the external sensor is accomplished by way of a wireless connection. Essentially, these devices replace the photoreceptors in the retina which translate light entering the eye into electricity, which is passed by way of the optic nerve to the cognitive centers of the brain. To those familiar LeVar Burton's character in “Star Trek – The Next Generation”, such a device has deja vu written all over it.
In that column a couple of years ago, I also mentioned research being conducted at the Doheny Eye Institute being led by Dr, Mark Humayun in the area of developing retinal prostheses that operate in a similar fashion, but differ in that the Doheny prosthesis is a replacement for the photoreceptors in the retina. While the MIT researchers have thus far been able to implant its electrode array into animals, the Doheny project has already placed its implants in human volunteers and reports that patients have been able to recognize object movement and simple shapes, such as the letter 'L'. The researchers on both the MIT and Doheny projects recognize that while their initial results are quite promising, they are a long way off from producing a marketable device. Nonetheless, these two projects mark significant progress towards improving the quality of life for thousands of patients who may otherwise live in darkness as a result of retinal disease.
On a similar note, another University of Arizona research team published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science its workdeveloping a new type of eyeglasses that use a liquid crystal lens to change its focus based on the line of sight of the wearer. Glasses made with this technology could offer a viable alternative for millions of people who experience symptoms of presbyopia, an age related deterioration of the eye which causes an inability to shift focus.
Aside from the obvious potential benefits to patients, these research projects are emblematic of the direction where the technology industry is going – and where today's engineering and science students should have their, no pun intended, focus. In each of these instances, significant progress was made through combining multiple disciplines (sensor design, mircoelectronics engineering, and biological materials science to name a few). In the age of offshoring, those technical workers and students who persist in going down the unidisciplinary path will find their career options and jobs vulnerable. In a recent episode of the National Geographic series, “Naked Science” the focus of the show was space exploration and how research in areas from propulsion system design to genetic engineering would be essential to meet the challenge of interplanetary (and possibly interstellar) space travel. As this academic year speeds to a close, the time is ripe for science and engineering students to reevaluate their courses of study with a view towards solving the technological challenges needed to create the future. The path of single discipline specialization leads only to one place – career extinction.
Russell de Pina is a Principal for n2active, a technology consulting firm located in Long Beach, CA and Houston, TX. Russell can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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