March 25, 2012

Shire ’89 Works to Help Blind Experience Sight

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Douglas Shire ’89 is currently working in a Cornell laboratory to develop a retinal implant that he hopes will allow blind individuals to see light, color and even movement by the end of the year.

The implant, called Generation Four, is inserted behind the eye and sends electrical signals to the brain to stimulate vision. Shire began working on developing retinal implants for the blind as part of the Boston Retinal Implant Project, a collaboration which began between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and has since expanded to include research teams at Boston University, the University of Louisville and more.

Shire, a Cornell alumnus with an electrical engineering degree, had never worked in the fields of biology or medicine before he landed a job at MIT researching eye implants. He said this was his first time being a part of a project that could lead to potential improvements and breakthroughs for the blind.

When Shire learned about the opportunity to work on retinal implants, he knew it would be a new and exciting chance for him to expand his research experience, he said.

“It was a great way to apply skills that I have to help people,” he said.

Shire said he was also interested in the job because he has known people with vision loss over the course of his life.

“My mother worked for charities and service agents that served the blind for the most of my childhood exposure,” he said.

In 2000, Shire had a chance to see his implants being used when he observed a series of Retinal Implant Project experiments with six blind human volunteers and one volunteer with normal vision whose eyes were scheduled to be removed because of orbital cancer. He said that the participants were only lightly sedated so they could still talk while his implants were inserted behind the patients’ eyes.

Experimenters sent electric currents to electrodes in the implants, which in turn transmitted these signals to the brain. Blind patients who had been unable to see for 10 to 20 years saw specks of light for the first time.

Shire said the results of the experiment provided evidence of a connection in the nerves between the brain and the eyes, prompting researchers to work on developing “a chronically implantable retinal neuro-stimulator.”

In addition to seeing specks of light, patients also saw “a line of four dots in a row, yellowish and bluish color,” Shire said.

He said that he was confident that if his team of researchers could build “an array of pixels, people would be able to see.”

Marcus Gingerich, a researcher who works with Shire, said the team has made many changes to the implants since they first started work on them. The new Generation Four implants — which are more complex and have more simulation channels to transfer a greater volume of information into the brain — will, Gingerich said, hopefully give “functional visual ability to people who are blind.”

He said that there are currently no cures for the blind — only treatments.

“The number of people suffering from macular degeneration” — a loss of vision — “is going up,” Gingerich said.

He said that restoring one of our sensory inputs is important because “we are very visual, the way we typically perceive our environment.”

Through their work, Shire and Gingerich said that they hope to see improvements in vision among the blind.

“Patients will be able to use devices like the one we’re working on to enhance their quality of life,” Shire said.

Original Author: Jaclyn Chen