A sight for sore eyes

In the future or…

Originally posted in October of 2011


Many of us think when unfortunate diseases hit our eye sight, we have no hope of getting that eyesight back. Things have been in motion in a Californian mid-sized town that are shaking the foundations off of that old belief.

“How can this be?” You might ask. Let’s start off by introducing a picture of something similar to many of us.


We are all familiar with the character cyclops. He is a character in the series X-Men who has glasses attached to his eyes. These glasses allow him to shoot his powers (lasers) in a orderly beam. These glasses are attached to his area around the eyes, and communicate with his brain/eyes. This process (while not 100 percent describing cyclops) is called Neural Prosthetic s.

Neural Prosthetic s – finding a way to substitute processes in the nervous system to carry out actions (such as visual reception, activation of neurons, etc).

Let us take a look into a project the Department of Energy has undertook to explore more of this unknown area.



DOE stands for – The U.S Department of Energy – a wing of the government that among being involved with energy matters, studies the scientific part of energy as well. The DOE started a project called the “Artificial Retina Project” in 2002 to find a way to help those people affected with debilitating eye diseases restore their sight. This noble caused employed volunteers of three main aspects of study – engineering, science, and medicine.

See more of the history in this project HERE.


A Background

The field of neural prosthetic s is not new, just unknown due to the highly complex nature of the eye and brain. One can actually trace the history of this field back to 63 AD to a physician named Largus. Go forward a little, and a man named Luigi Galvani in 1791 passed electrical currents into dead frogs, noticing they twitched. This twitching indicated the relation of electrical currents and the way the brain works with the body. After Galvani, a man named Giovanni Aldini in 1802 passed electrical currents into human cadavers, getting the same effect as Galvani had. Another man by the name of Otfrid Foerster made significant contributions to the field of neurology in 1929.


Current Products

In this age and time, there are current products you may know of that fall in the field of neural prosthetic s.

Cochlear Implant



Cochlear Implant – A device that allows a person who has lost hearing to get a sensation of hearing

Deep brain stimulator


Deep brain stimulator

Deep Brain Stimulation – Sends electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain. This stimulates the region for benefits

Read more about these devices by using Google Scholar


Why the need for this?

You might be wondering right about now, that this sounds all great and stuff, but why exactly am I even talking about this?

Well in fact, many people suffer from diseases that affect the eye, and most importantly sight. These diseases are named :

Glaucoma – Where the optic nerve in your eye ( click HERE for a visual of the optic nerve ) is damaged, causing permanent vision damage.

Retinitis Pigmentosa – An genetic (inherited) condition which can lead to incurable blindness. Some of its features is tunnel vision.

Age Macular degeneration – Age related disease where the eye loses vision, causing the center vision to become blocked, and fuzziness all around the eye. (AMD for short).


Physiology of the eye

To understand how to fix these diseases, we must look at the physiology of the eye. I would like to note that I am very thankful to Mrs. Tate at Granada High for having the best Physiology class I have ever been in. That class taught me so much about biology, anatomy, and chemistry.

Nervous System – In our body, we have this incredible highway of communication called the nervous system. (See a visual of the bodies nervous system HERE) A nerve cell contains all of the necessary parts to send a message from one part of the body to another (most popular example is from the brain to a part of the body). When the brain sends out it’s signal to do something, the signal causes an action potential in the nerve cell. This action potential activates, guiding the message first through the dendrites (receiving end of the nerve cell). The message then goes through the axon, to the axon terminal, where it then diffuses across an open area called the synaptic clef. The message then binds to receptors on another neuron, and starts the process over again, until it does what it was intended to do.

That was a very quick oversight on how the nervous system partially works. Forgive me, I left out pretty much most of the detail.


Relation to the eye

In the eye, we have nerve cells that are called ganglions (masses of nerve cells). We also have rods and cones which play a central part to vision and what we see. One has to understand that the eye is communicating in terms of light measure, i.e the eye is measuring light! When the light of something comes into our eyes, it goes directly on the ganglion, and rods and cones. These nerve cells then start the process (as described above) of communicating. The message is sent to the brain, and then comes back to our eyes in the form of of another message. This message is our vision, and we see the object.

This process is illustrated in these images – Retina (contains the nerve cells) Vision Process (how we see).

When a diseases that related to vision forms, it usually affects the retina and vision process. We now cannot see as well as we should, or we cannot see at all (blindness). This is where researches are now confident they have made a footing (to fix).


Artificial Retina

The Artificial Retina is a device of wonders, this is what it looks like :

It may look like a lot, but really is not.

The device is made to look like a pair of sunglasses, and really is not that invasive to the patient.


Using the device

With the device, you have a camera on the front of the device (in the glasses) which sends information (wireless) to a processor (which is worn on the belt). This processor gets the data, and then transmits it in the form of an electronic signal to a receiver. The receiver, which is on the eye, sends the signal through a tiny cable to the micro electrode pad (array). This micro electrode array is a pad with electrodes on it (see HERE) which is placed on the ganglion cells in the retina (refer back to Relation to the eye if you need a reminder on where the ganglion cells are). This micro electrode then stimulates when it receives a signal from the receiver, causing it to emit pulses. These pulses act just like signal through the nerve cells, and then go down to the working photoreceptor s. The pulse then goes to the optic nerve, and finally to the brain which allows the user to perceive an image.

View the process HERE


What is the implant made out of?

Interestingly, the implant is made out of a combination of the fields that put research into this process (engineering, science, medicine).

The device is made up of micro technology (such as chips) which help it to send and receive signals. The material used in the actual device are elements most us know of, such as Platinum, Gold, Tin, and Aluminium. The device was made to be bio-compatible with the tender and sensitive eye, yet stands up to the harsh environment of the outside world.

The micro electrode array was made using a technique of Photo-lithography, which made the patterns we see on the electrode.



Straight from the projects website are heart-warming and cool videos of how this device is impacting lives. The device has gone through succesful clinical-trials and is now on sale in Europe. Here are some videos of the trials.


Interview with MSNBC

Article on Clinical Trials



With any new life easing device, there are always problems and challenges to overcome. The many scientist, engineers, doctors, and technicians that are working on this find making the resolution of what the patient sees to be a hard task to undertake. Currently the device has around 200 electrodes on the electrode array. This produces a fuzzy resolution (as you saw in the videos) of the image the patient can see. The researches on this project want a goal of 1000 electrodes to fit on the array so the patients can get a better picture (keep in mind, humans with normal vision can see up to millions of times better than these patients can, so the reality of seeing perfectly is not quite there yet).

There is also a challenge of making the device more non-evasive and finding ways to eliminate the need to cause even minor pain to patients. There is also talk of trying to make it stimulate other things, like the brain, or other parts of the body that have some neuron complication.

In all, the gains these researches have made have been so significant, that it is worth all of the studying and money they have probably spent on it.

Who worked on it?

As I commented in the beginning of this article, a very important component of this device was made in a small Californian town (where I happen to reside), Livermore. The Lawrence Livermore National Lab is responsible for the micro electrode array development, among other things. More partners such as University of California Santa Cruz, and the Sandia National Laboratory have been working on this project. In the final count, 6 national laboratories, 4 universities, and private industry have been working on this wonderful project.

Sources and count from HERE

A Reflection

The way science and technology can be used for good causes, like this, continues to amaze me. This device has the potential to make millions of peoples lives more easy and better in the entire world. The collaboration between different fields also tell us that no matter what your profession, you can work together with others to come up with something truly life saving and amazing. Recently a group of researches who personally worked on this project gave a presentation at the Las Positas College main theater. These group of people have put more than 7 years time into developing this product and are seeing the fruits of success, by way of people who have not seen being able to see now. I truly congratulate all of the people who worked on this project, and pray for continued success of this project for years to come.

As they finished up the presentation to us college students who are just creating our careers, I thought of something very important that one of the researchers mentioned at the end. This project, and research, was done by people in a variety of fields (engineering, science, medicine). In order to understand the complexities of this problem and how to fix it, I realized one must know things from every one of those fields in order to have a complete view of the problem (and how to fix it). Today’s world of problems no longer requires people to have one specialized area of profession, but a multitude of skills in different areas. That might be a bit of a challenge for us college students, but its a challenge worth taking. Seeing how this can help fellow human begins only makes people WANT to attain more skills to help out.


Looking for more information?

If you might be interested in jumping into this area of profession, get an internship with one of the 6 DOE Laboratory’s

Check them out HERE 

Livermore Lawrence National Laboratory ST team

Official Website for the AR Project

In the Livermore Area? See more Science Seminars from LLNL – Here

The opinions and references in this article were made by an author of umayrsufi.com and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or content of U.S Department of Energy, Las Positas College, or any of its affiliates.


  • October 11, 2012

    […] Lab. You might remember our article on the “Artificial Retina Project” – (link here). This lab has been the source of cutting edge science, and the U.S government assigns some of its […]

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