Solar retinal implants may restore sight to the blind

May 29, 2012 // By Jonathan Rabinovitz
Using tiny solar-panel-like cells surgically placed underneath the retina, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have devised a system that may someday restore sight to people who have lost vision because of certain types of degenerative eye diseases.

This device, a new type of retinal prosthesis, involves a specially designed pair of goggles, which are equipped with a miniature camera and a pocket PC that is designed to process the visual data stream. The resulting images would be displayed on a liquid crystal microdisplay embedded in the goggles, similar to what's used in video goggles for gaming. Unlike the regular video goggles, though, the images would be beamed from the LCD using laser pulses of near-infrared light to a photovoltaic silicon chip — one-third as thin as a strand of hair — implanted beneath the retina. Electric currents from the photodiodes on the chip would then trigger signals in the retina, which then flow to the brain, enabling a patient to regain vision.

"It works like the solar panels on your roof, converting light into electric current," said Daniel Palanker, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and the paper's senior author. "But instead of the current flowing to your refrigerator, it flows into your retina." Palanker is also a member of the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford and of the interdisciplinary Stanford research program, Bio-X. The study's co-first authors are Keith Mathieson, PhD, a visiting scholar in Palanker's lab, and James Loudin, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar. Palanker and Loudin jointly conceived and designed the prosthesis system and the photovoltaic arrays.

There are several other retinal prostheses being developed, and at least two of them are in clinical trials. Unlike these other devices — which require coils, cables or antennas inside the eye to deliver power and information to the retinal implant — the Stanford device uses near-infrared light to transmit images, thereby avoiding any need for wires and cables, and making the device thin and easily implantable.

"The current implants are very bulky, and the surgery to place the intraocular wiring for receiving, processing and power is difficult," Palanker said. The device developed by his team, he noted,