Trading Touch for Sight: UPMC Researchers Working to Offer Eyesight to the Blind
Remember that lazy childhood game where you'd close your eyes, your kid sister would draw a shape on your back with her finger, and you'd guess what it was? A new device that uses the same principle is now being studied at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Vision Restoration, offering hope for hopeless cases and for the millions of Americans with impaired vision.
The principle behind the revolutionary new device is similar to Braille, which allows the visually impaired to read with their fingertips. Using sensory substitution, the new device, called BrainPort, enables the perception of visual information using the tongue and a camera system to replace the eyes.
The technology debuted last month in Pittsburgh, when a Marine in full-dress uniform and a cool pair of Oakley shades took a seat at a packed press conference at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine
. It wasn't the first time that Corporal Mike Jernigan had been in the line of fire.
As his Hummer patrolled a dusty highway between Baghdad and Kuwait in August, 2004, the then 25-year-old Jernigan was nearly finished with a seven-month deployment in Iraq and dreaming of heading home to St. Petersburg, Florida. A roadside bomb exploded, and Jerniganís life changed forever. The force shattered his right hand, left leg, and part of his skull. It also destroyed both of his eyes, sentencing the young man to permanent, incurable blindness.
"I was jacked up pretty bad," he says, after 30 surgeries in twelve months.
After five years of rehab, Jernigan is back on his feet, a student at Georgetown University and a vigorous volunteer for causes that help blinded veterans. That includes BrainPort. Demonstrating the device with Maj. Gen. (retired) Gale Pollock, director of the Fox Center for Vision Restoration
, Jernigan synchronized the tiny camera mounted on his sunglasses with a Blackberry-sized device that translated the light information to electrical stimulation. Holding a small sensor against his tongue, Jernigan aimed the camera at a simple white shapes against a black screen and concentrated on the sensations.
As Gen. Pollock adjusted the shapes, she asked, "Mike, what do you see?" As he confidently identified each of four shapes placed before him, the audience burst into applause.
More than one in ten of all combat wounds suffered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are eye injuries. BrainPort may one day help severely injured veterans, as well as millions more who suffer from impaired sight.
"Vision loss is a huge issue for the U.S. and the world," says Gen. Pollock. "It's one of the top ten disabilities in the nation, sometimes due to diseases of aging, like glaucoma, and others of lifestyle, like diabetes."
Pollock, former deputy surgeon general of the U.S. Army, has been committed to helping those veterans since 2004. "I was listening to Senate testimony when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) asked what the military was doing for blinded soldiers," she recalls. "There was no answer. I began to wonder what we were missing."
With $1 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development
and $3 million from retired financier Louis J. Fox, for whom it is named, the center has begun to transform BrainPort from an experimental device into an affordable aid that can help the blind decipher stationary objects. Itís a job well-suited to the multi-disciplinary research center and clinical program. A joint effort of the UPMC Eye Center
and the McGowan Institute, the center focuses especially on problems affecting the retina, optic nerve, cornea and lens.
Other University of Pittsburgh research supports those efforts. The McGowan Center, the University of Pittsburgh
and Wake Forest University
lead a consortium seeking new treatments for wounded soldiers. McGowan's founding director, Dr. Alan Russell, is co-director of the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), an $85-million federal project coordinating two consortia. Pollock says that the vision center will also collaborate with other local experts. Informatics researchers at Carnegie Mellon University
will work with device developer Wicab
to minimize the footprint of the device and hand controller.
"We're talking to the Pitt dental school
about making the 'lollipop' (tongue sensor) into a bridge against the upper palate," she notes. "Thatís the exciting thing about Pittsburgh; we have a wonderful array of very talented, committed, bright people."
Wicab, based in Middleton, Wisconsin, is conducting clinical testing of the BrainPort device with blind users at Lighthouse International
in New York and the Atlanta V.A. Medical Center
. Company CEO Bob Beckman says that FDA approval of the device may come within a year, but says the device has "a long way to go" before all its capabilities are realized. Wicab has also created a BrainPort for balance disorders. The expected retail price of that device will be about $10,000, and Beckman says the vision restoration product will carry a similar price tag.
In the end, it may be an affordable version of a priceless gift: eyesight for the blind.
Christine H. O'Toole is Keystone Edge's Innovation and Job News Editor for Western Pennsylvania. Send feedback here.
Center executive director Gen. Gale Pollock helps Cpl. Mike
Jernigan, who lost both of his eyes after an explosion in Iraq, set up
the BrainPort vision-assist device.
Cpl. Jernigan demonstrates how he can identify shapes with BrainPort.
All Photographs by Renee Rosensteel