Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology have announced that they have successfully implanted the first Intra-Cortical Visual Prosthesis (ICVP) that could give artificial vision. An exciting new achievement with the potential to advance neuroscience significantly, this new brain implant could have significant ramifications for those with sensory disabilities.
Background: What is a Brain Implant?
Brain implants are a controversial topic due to ethical concerns and portrayal within popular culture. These implants work as a prosthetic, allowing the subject to regain use of a particular part of their brain, function better, and have a higher quality of life. Many of the implants mimic the missing or damaged neurons, allowing a more natural rehabilitation method.
Brain implants can be pretty invasive (as the skull needs to be cracked open for insertion). Therefore ethical concerns surround the implementation of brain implants, which may have serious side effects. Other concerns revolve around the more nefarious uses of neural implants, including possible surveillance. This fear of spying on one’s thoughts via implant has been prevalent due to many science fiction works, including the Matrix, the X-files, and Black Mirror. In each of these cases, the subject becomes controlled via the implant. In reality, brain implants can be beneficial to individuals who want to regain a sense that they have lost, such as taste or sight.
Analysis: Implanting Sight
The IVP system that the Illinois Institute of Technology scientists used is based on over 30 years of research. The system works by connecting directly to the brain’s visual cortex, bypassing the retina and optic nerves. This implant is designed for patients with blindness due to trauma or eye disease. The implant is permanent and has a wireless function, so it can be adjusted as needed over time. The groundbreaking implant contained over 25 stimulators with 400 electrodes. The individual with the implant will have a 4–6-week recovery period. According to the Executive Director of the Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering, Philip R. Troyk: “This is an incredibly exciting moment, not just for the field of biomedical engineering, but more importantly for people with blindness and their loved ones around the world.”
While the implant doesn’t give full sight to the patients, it does help them distinguish light from dark. “For people who are completely blind, gaining even a little bit of light perception can make a huge difference,” explained Janet P. Szlyk, the president and CEO of the Chicago Lighthouse, a collaborator. “The findings from this research will help pave the way for other groundbreaking advancements in blindness research and vision restoration.”
Outlook: Could Implants Be the Future?
The success of the IVP implant shows that these types of prosthetics can significantly improve the quality of life for thousands of individuals. Individuals with missing senses maybe or feel incapacitated. With these implants, they can live a more normal life, enjoying time with others more happily and productively.
Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/