Thanks to researchers from the University of Miguel Hernandez de Elche in Spain, the blind may be one step closer to seeing again.
The scientists have created a new implant that directly jacks into the brain, bypassing the eyes, allowing blind people to have rudimentary vision.
Pointing towards a big black line running over a white sheet of cardboard that's placed at arm's length from Bernadeta Gómez, she said "allí", which means "there" in Spanish.
Gómez has been completely blind for over 15 years. She can't see light, structures, let alone black lines running over white sheets of cardboard. That was until she agreed to take part in Eduardo Fernandez's, director of neuroengineering at the University of Miguel Hernandez de Elche, research.
During her six month trial with Fernandez, Gómez was able to finally see in extremely low-resolution a version of what the world looks like. It came out looking like glowing whitish dots and shapes, but it was something other than pure darkness.
She was able to do so by wearing a modified pair of glasses that was blacked out and included a tiny camera. The device hooked up to a computer that ran through a live video feed and turned it into electronic signals.
A cable suspended from the ceiling linked up the system and into a port that was embedded into the back of Gómez's skull and wired with a 100-electrode implant in her visual cortex, at the back end of her brain.
Talk about a cyborg sci-fi image.
Regardless of what this image may conjure up for you, for Gómez it enabled her to see and identify ceiling lights, letters, basic shapes on paper, and even people. She was "plugged" into the experiments four days a week during her six months with Fernandez and his team.
What makes Fernandez's approach particularly exciting is that he bypasses the eyes entirely, and goes straight for the brain. His hope is to come up with a solution to assist the roughly 36 million blind people on Earth today.
"Berna was our first patient, but over the next couple of years we will install implants in five more blind people," said Fernandez to MIT Technology. "We had done similar experiments in animals, but a cat or a monkey can’t explain what it’s seeing."
The reason Gómez was only able to see for six months is because the contraption isn't yet certified as safe to remain in her brain for over that amount of time. Noone yet knows how long the electrodes can safely stay in the brain, but the team hopes to create a long-term solution for blind people.