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March 21, 2017

New nano implant might help restore sight

Nanovision Biosciences Inc. and a team of engineers from the University of California San Diego have developed the science needed for a new type of retinal prosthesis. They use nano-technology to stimulate the retina electrically. This brings research a step closer to restoring the ability of neurons in the retina to respond to light. The development could help millions of people with loss of vision.

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Although the development of retinal prostheses has made remarkable strides in the past two decades, the performance of devices on the market to help the blind regain functional vision is still severely limited. Having 20/20 eyesight seems like something from the distant future for those with reduced vision. Nanovision wanted to create a new class of devices with improved capabilities to help these people. Partnering with the University of California San Diego, they developed the technology needed for a new nano implant. Millions of people worldwide suffering from diseases that affect eyesight could be helped by the technology.

No external vision sensor needed

One key difference between existing retinal prostheses and the researchers’ prototype is that the new system does not require a vision sensor outside of the eye. Instead, the device makes use of arrays of silicon nanowires that sense light. The silicon nanowires mimic the retina’s light sensing cones and rods to stimulate retinal cells directly. Eliminating an external vision sensor means that the device is highly scalable, since it makes that the prosthesis has a much simpler architecture than other prosthesis.

Mimicking the human retina

The nanowires mimic the dense spacing of photoreceptors in the human retina. This is critical, since the prosthesis has to match the resolution and sensitivity of the human retina to truly restore functional vision. So far, the nanowires give the prosthesis a higher resolution than achieved by other devices.

The neurons, when being tested, responded to electrical stimulation and light. The ultimate goal of Nanovision and partners is restoring functional vision in patients with severe retinal degeneration. Animal tests with the device are in progress, with clinical trials following.

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