A Medical Breakthrough Uses Solar Power to Restore Sight to the Blind

A Medical Breakthrough Uses Solar Power to Restore Sight to the Blind

New research suggests that a leading cause of blindness can be fixed with tiny solar panels in the eyeball.

A team spearheaded by Stanford University researchers found they could improve vision in rats using hexagonal, wireless silicon implants, called pixels. The implants attach to working neurons, called ganglions, in the eye — survivors that weren't knocked out by degenerative diseases like retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration. Essentially, the implants replace the dead photoreceptors, which turn light into signals and tell our brains what we see. 

The team published its findings in the journal Nature Medicine. Here's one view of the implant, sitting just under the retina:

The implant under a retinaSource: Palanker laboratory/Stanford Medicine
The implant under a retina  Palanker laboratory/Stanford Medicine

The technology is based on photovoltaics, or the process of converting solar energy into electricity. NASA's Glenn Research Center has an entire photovoltaics department; solar energy is essential for building and powering solar probes that travel closer to the sun. There are even photovoltaic systems in use on the International Space Station.

The ability to make these "solar panels" smaller — and embeddable in the human eye — means more of them can fit in the eye, which translates to better, more accurate vision. Combined with additional light transmitted to the panels from a special pair of glasses, vision could improve even more.

Current prosthetics with the same purpose get less-accurate results. They involve wires and more invasive surgery, which can lead to infection. So far, according to the Stanford Medicine News Center, these prostheses normally only improve a patient's vision up to 20/1,200 — not great.

The Stanford researchers' rat-tested results showed vision restoration up to 20/250, almost five times better than current options. The research team has plans to run a clinical trial next year, working with a French company called Pixium Vision.

"Eventually, we hope this technology will restore vision of 20/120," Daniel Palanker, lead author on the paper, told the Stanford Medicine News Center. "And if it works that well, it will become relevant to patients with age-related macular degeneration."

No, it's not 20/20 vision — at least, not yet. But given the eyeball technology currently in development, this could be another major step toward retaining, and then improving, our ability to see.

h/t Nature Medicine