Decoding the Signal between the Eye Retina and the Brain Neurons to Cure Blindness


(E) Finding a cure for blindness! Bionic eyes, to restore human vision for those suffering from partial or total blindness, have been experimenting over the last twenty years. But what has been missing is understanding the processing of the signals, that are exchanged between the eyes and the brain. Decoding and establishing how those signals are being transmitted from the retina of the eye to the brain neurons is what Computational Neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg has dedicated her life to.

Those signals are processed into a complicated circuitry, that Professor Nirenberg calls the “code”, that starts from the photoreceptor cells of the retina, where light is converted into electrical pulses, to the output cells that communicate those pulses to the brain neurons. Professor Nirenberg’s remarkable findings are to simulate the code with mathematical equations that she established by probing the circuitry from animals.

And, Professor Nirenberg’s achievements are not only extraordinary but also truly inspiring. She received a MacArthur “genius” award for her research in 2013:

Sheila Nirenberg is a neuroscientist exploring fundamental questions about how the brain encodes visual information and developing an alternative approach to restoring sight after photoreceptor cell degeneration. In the visual sensory system in mammals, the photoreceptor cells in the retina take in information from the outside world, such as an image or visual pattern. This information is then passed through the retinal circuitry to the ganglion cells, which transform it into a neural code that the brain can understand. In the case of diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, which affect approximately 20–25 million people worldwide, vision is lost when deteriorating photoreceptor cells no longer take in visual signals.

Instead of trying to replace the lost photoreceptor cells—an approach that is usually quite invasive and that has shown limited benefit for advanced stage disease—Nirenberg has developed a method for bypassing the damaged photoreceptor cells entirely and interacting directly with the ganglion cells. She crystallized the complex relationship between visual stimuli and corresponding ganglion cell activity and deciphered the specific neural “codes” that are generated in response to dynamic spatial and temporal visual patterns. Nirenberg invented a computerized eyeglass prosthetic that transmits the codes to the ganglion cells, which then send the codes to the brain. Although still in the early phases of clinical testing, this new, less invasive strategy has obtained very promising results in mice.

In another line of research, Nirenberg is adapting and applying her discoveries in neural coding to machine vision algorithms with the goal of advancing the state of the art in robotic “vision” and brain-machine interfaces. In addressing fundamental questions about sensory signal processing in both mammals and machines, Nirenberg is poised to catalyze a major leap in the science of visual perception.”

Now, Professor Nirenberg is looking for the FDA to approve her prosthetic device. Bloomberg did recently a beautiful video about it: Breaking the Brain’s Code to Cure Blindness. And, following is the talk that she gave at TED, that gives a deep insight into the technology of her device:

Note: The picture above is from Professor Nirenberg’s TED talk.

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Categories: Biosystems