The development of an artificial retina with the potential to restore sight to the blind is currently underway at the University of Sydney. Made from multi-coloured carbon-based semiconductors, the electrical device uses absorbed light to fire the neurons that transmit signals from the eyes to the brain.
Created by Dr Matthew Griffith, from the Australian Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis and the School of Areospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, experiments with the device have so far elicited promising results.
If successful, our device will help us progress towards solving one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century; communicating with the human body’s sensory network
“Worldwide, the number of people living with vision impairment is at least 2.2 billion,” said Dr Griffith.
“Our research aims to provide a biomedical solution to those experiencing blindness from retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the second being one of the leading causes of blindness in the world.”
The device will be printed onto soft, flexible surfaces from water-based inks that contain nerve growth factors and then inserted into a patient’s retina by a surgeon. Once the relevant neurons reconnect to it, the retina will regain lost functionality when stimulated with light.
“If successful, our device will help us progress towards solving one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century; communicating with the human body’s sensory network,” said Dr Griffith.
“We hope to achieve this using nothing but light, which opens up some really exciting prospects for the future of bioelectronic technology.”
The longterm goal is to apply the neural interface – a device that interacts with an individual’s nervous system to record or stimulate activity – to restore sensory function to those with spinal cord injuries, and to treat people with neurodegenerative diseases.
“Among other functions, neurons are the body’s signal conductors. A missing neuron link, which can be caused by, for example, a spinal cord injury, can cause severe problems,” said Dr Griffith.
“It can also be debilitating if neurons misfire – this can cause blindness and deafness, as well as diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy, for which there is no cure.”
So far experiments have been conducted using neurons from the spinal cord and eyes of mice.
“The next step is to control where they grow by printing nanopatterns. This is so in future, we can direct them to grow into specific bodily locations, like a spinal cord or retina,” said Dr Griffith.
Dr Griffith has been awarded an NHMRC Ideas grant to continue work on the project together with colleagues from the University of Sydney and neurobiologists from the University of Newcastle.