Adapted from image by Jan Kaláb (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Working backwards to give clearer vision

Reverse engineering improves the performance of artificial retinas.

One of the most common causes of blindness is a disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. In a healthy eye, the surface at the back of the eye — called the retina — contains cells called photoreceptors that detect light and convert it into electrical signals for the brain to process. In people with retinitis pigmentosa, these photoreceptor cells die off gradually, which leads to loss of vision.

The only treatment available for retinitis pigmentosa is to have an artificial retina implanted into the eye. The artificial retina consists of an array of tiny electrodes, which take over from the damaged photoreceptors and generate electrical signals. The person with the implant perceives these electrical signals as bright flashes called “phosphenes”. However, the phosphenes are too large and imprecise to provide the person with vision that is good enough for tasks such as walking unaided or reading.

To find out why artificial retinas produce such poor resolution, Sébastien Roux and colleagues compared how a rat’s brain responds to either natural visual stimuli or activation of an implanted array of micro-electrodes. Both the micro-electrodes and the natural stimuli activated the same areas of the brain. However, the micro-electrodes produced larger and more elongated patterns of activation. This is because the electrical currents generated by the micro-electrodes diffused throughout the retinal tissue and activated other neurons besides those intended. To overcome this problem, Roux and colleagues tested different ways of stimulating the micro-electrodes in order to identify those that induce the desired patterns of brain activity. This approach — known as reverse engineering — did indeed improve the performance of the micro-electrode array.

The next step is to extend these findings, which were obtained in healthy rats, to non-human primates or animal models of retinitis pigmentosa to better understand the condition in humans. In addition, combining the current approach with other existing techniques should further improve the vision that can be achieved with artificial retinas.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: