Research performed at Caltech
as part of a collaborative U.S. Department of Energy-funded artificial-retina
project designed to restore sight to the blind has received one of R+D Magazine's
2009 R+D 100 Awards. The prize recognizes significant new technologies that
exemplify the most innovative ideas of the previous year.
The artificial retina is a bioelectronic implant that aims to give people with
age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa-two severe forms
of retinal degeneration that lead to blindness-the ability to recognize
objects and navigate through their environment. It works via a camera mounted
on a pair of glasses, which sends visual information to an implanted electronic
It is here that Caltech's expertise comes into play. As principal investigator
on Caltech's portion of the artificial retina project-which is led by
researchers at USC's Keck School of Medicine-Wolfgang Fink, a visiting
associate in physics at Caltech and a senior researcher at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, and Caltech colleague Mark Tarbell have devised and implemented
a versatile image-processing software system called the Artificial Retinal Implant
Vision Simulator (ARIVS). The ARIVS software system enhances and processes the
images captured by the miniature camera in real time according to individually
selectable image filters; those ARIVS-processed images are then transmitted
to the artificial retina's electrode array.
The electrodes, in turn, stimulate the eye's unharmed retinal ganglion cells,
which then transmit their own signals through the optic nerve to the part of
the brain known as the visual cortex. From these nerve impulses, the brain creates
a visual picture.
To optimize this visual perception, Caltech's Visual and Autonomous Exploration
Systems Research Laboratory, under Fink's direction, has also devised and implemented
computer algorithms that assist in translating the ARIVS-processed images into
useful electrical stimulation of the ganglion cells by means of an iterative
process much like that used to determine an eyeglass prescription. Currently,
29 patients have had artificial retina systems implanted as part of clinical
trials. The most recent version of the implant features an array of 60 pixels,
allowing users to distinguish between light and dark, and see certain distinct
objects. The ultimate goal, according to the research team, is to allow for
reading and face recognition by increasing the number of pixels to 1,000.
Five national laboratories, four universities, and a private company are involved
in the Artificial Retina Project. They are Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National
Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories, USC (Doheny Eye Institute), Caltech,
North Carolina State University, and UC Santa Cruz. The industrial partner,
Second Sight Medical Products, Inc., is responsible for commercializing
the product and conducting clinical trials.
R+D Magazine has been showcasing new technologies with its R+D 100
Award since 1963. In 2008, Morteza Gharib, the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of
Aeronautics and professor of bioengineering at Caltech, received the award for
the creation of a three-dimensional camera with a vast array of possibilities,
ranging from 3-D movement tracking for rehabilitation to underwater surveillance.
For a full list of the 2009 R+D 100 winners, go to http://www.rdmag.com/awards.html,
and to learn more about Fink's Caltech lab, go to http://autonomy.caltech.edu.