Breakthrough: Blind woman now able to detect shapes thanks to U of U researchers

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Berna Gómez wears special eyewear as part of a U of U experiment to help her see. Image courtesy John D. Moran Eye Center/ University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4)- Researchers at the John E. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah and Miguel Hernandez University in Alicante, Spain were able to successfully allow a blind woman to detect shapes using a prosthetic brain implant.

Moran researcher Richard A. Normann, Ph.D., and Spanish collaborator Eduardo Fernández, MD, Ph.D. discussed in a joint paper how they were able to create the ability for 60-year old Berna Gómez, a former science teacher from Spain, to recognize simple shapes. 

A device called the Utah Electrode Array (UEA), which was invented by Normann, was implanted into Gómez’s cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain responsible consciousness, thought, emotion, and language.

For the research, Gómez, who had been blind for 16 years at the time of the experiment, put on a special pair of eyeglasses which were equipped with a miniature video camera. The camera had special software installed that would collect visual information, then send that information to the UEA, which then simulated neurons that produced what is called phosphene, or the ability to see light without it actually entering the eye.

The researchers created a sort of video game for Gómez to help her use the prosthetic device. Using the character of Maggie Simpson from The Simpsons, she was able to interact with the game and describe what she was able to visually perceive through the prosthetic device. In the end, the research found Gómez was able to detect lines, shapes, and simple letters. 

Videos available at the university’s website show Gómez detecting where the edges were on a piece of paper with black and white bars. She was also able to detect the colors of each of those bars. 

“These results are very exciting because they demonstrate both safety and efficacy,” Fernández said, “We have taken a significant step forward, showing the potential of these types of devices to restore functional vision for people who have lost their vision.” 

According to the University of Utah, Fernandez and Normann had collaborated for over 30 years. Normann discussed the aim of the research.

“One goal of this research is to give a blind person more mobility,” said Normann. “It could allow them to identify a person, doorways, or cars easily. It could increase independence and safety. That’s what we’re working toward.”

Researchers are now hoping that experiments will evolve into using a more sophisticated imaging encoder system which would help Gómez detect more complex images.

Additional members of the research team include University of Utah neurosurgeons and neuroscientists, John D. Rolston, MD, Ph.D., and Tyler Davis, MD, Ph.D.

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