There could be new hope for people living with blindness — in fact an innovative device that is currently under development could give some people their sight back! Laxman Saggere, Assistant Professor of Medical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is currently working on his invention, which he proposed last year. His goal is to restore vision in people suffering from retinal diseases such as macular degeneration caused by aging.
In such eye conditions, the retina’s photoreceptors — the cells that release neurotransmitters when they detect light, which start the chain reaction of signals that lead to the brain processing images — are damaged, causing difficulties with vision, including the much feared blindness.
Saggere’s invention is an implant involving a set of neurotransmitter pumps that act as replacement photoreceptors. Here’s how it works: light hits the implant’s solar cell, which triggers a layer of material called “lead zirconate titanate” (PZT). This then pushes down on a silicon disc, which releases a spray containing neurotransmitters onto the retina, which then kick-starts the whole image processing cycle in the brain. Ultimately, this should allow the person with the implant to see again.
The reason this device is back in the news is that Saggere has successfully built an important part: the actuator, which is solar-powered, by the way. The actuator consists of the PZT layer and the silicon disc, so you can see how essential it is to the whole process.
There are actually other implants that aim to fix retinal problems, but this one is different. First off, all the other devices require a hook-up to external batteries, which makes them not as convenient for the person with the implant — and not very energy-efficient or environmentally friendly. Second, the way the other implants work is that they hit the retinal cells with an electric charge, causing them to heat up, which could be harmful.
Note that this invention is still in the developmental stages, so studies on its effectiveness have yet to be conducted. Nevertheless, we look forward to hearing more on this breakthrough device, as a potential solution to any kind of blindness is always welcome news.