The brain’s electrical conductivity creates a special place in medicine for electrical engineers. It has allowed them to open new frontiers, using implanted electronic devices to bypass damaged human sense organs and reconnect the brain to information about the external world.
Among the world leaders of this ‘bionic’ revolution is Professor Anthony Burkitt at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
Professor Burkitt helped to research the bionic ear, which is now manufactured by Cochlear Ltd, and has been implanted in about 300,000 people worldwide.
Since 2010 he and his team in Bionic Vision Australia have turned their attention to the challenge of a bionic eye that can translate information from a camera into electrical signals the optic nerve can read.
Professor Burkitt heads the project, which involves hundreds of collaborating researchers and clinicians who recently completed the pre-clinical safety study. Three remarkable volunteers, whose vision has degenerated due to retinitis pigmentosa, have also tested a prototype.
We were aiming to provide enough information to allow a blind person to regain their mobility, says Professor Burkitt, who was present when the three bionic eye prototypes were turned on for the first time.
The volunteers reported seeing ‘phosphenes’, flashes of light that resemble a pixelated image, and they could scan a visual scene and extract quite a lot of information, enough to perceive obstacles and restore the ability to carry out everyday activities.
This is similar to the first cochlear implants, which at ‘turn-on’ achieved sound quality reminiscent of a badly tuned radio station. Many implants were subsequently able to restore normal sound quality, partially due to the brain learning to process bionic signals. A similar development curve may also improve the image quality of the bionic eye.
Plans are now underway for a full regulatory study of the bionic eye as a prelude to commercialisation.