The days run away like wild horses over the hills, according to Charles Bukowski, and that’s my only excuse for not blogging more about technology. But the news that a company is curing blindness with sci-fi tech straight out of Star Trek compelled me to blog.
In a 2011 TED talk, Dr. Sheila Nirenberg described cracking the neural code the brain uses to see. In the nine years since this groundbreaking announcement, Dr. Nirenberg solicited venture capital, started a company, and refined the research. On June 16, 2020, Bionic Sight announced a clinical trial of a key piece of Dr. Nirenberg’s vision system, an optogenetic treatment called BS01.
We often think of the eye as a camera. But film is a poor analogy for the retina, which performs many complex image processing tasks and sends the encoded result along the optic nerve to the brain. Bionic Sight’s prosthetic glasses convert images into the code Dr. Nirenberg discovered, thus replacing the functionality formerly provided by the eye’s cornea, lens, and retina.
But the optic nerve is built to interface with the retina, not the prosthetic glasses.. Bionic Sight’s BS01 drug treatment modifies neural ganglion cells at the back of the eye so they can relay image data from the prosthetic to the optic nerve. After a blind patient is treated with BS01 and fitted with the prosthetic glasses, they see as if they weren’t blind at all.
In a recent video, Dr. Nirenberg says a properly designed prosthetic wouldn’t be limited to visible light. Patients could theoretically see infrared, ultraviolet, and other non-visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum like Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
That the treatment goes beyond simply restoring eyesight to provide superhuman vision seems karmically just, as anyone who has lost their eyesight will readily attest.
Image credit: NEI/NIH.