Sensory Substitution Helps the Blind See

In late 2010, Wicab, Inc. announced receipt of a grant for $3.2M from the Defense



Medical Research and Development Program to evaluate and improve the BrainPort vision device (pictured) with help from veterans who lost sight on the battlefield. World-class collaborators include co-PI McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Amy Nau, OD, director of optometric and low vision services and an assistant professor, the UPMC Eye Center, department of ophthalmology, University of Pittsburgh, and research collaborator, The Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC Eye Center, who will oversee human subject testing and outcomes assessments. The BrainPort can bypass the eye and optic nerve using an approach called sensory substitution, which works by rerouting the information from an impaired sense through an alternative sense.
“It’s very out-of-the-box thinking,” said Dr. Nau.  Other high-tech visual aids such as retinal implants can’t be used by people with damaged optic nerves or traumatic damage to the eyes, she said.
Wicab’s BrainPort vision device enables perception of visual information using the tongue and camera system as a paired substitute for the eye. Visual information is collected from a video camera and translated into gentle electrical stimulation patterns on the surface of the tongue. Users describe it as pictures drawn on their tongue with champagne bubbles. With training users may perceive shape, size, location, and motion of objects in their environment. The BrainPort vision device is intended to augment rather than replace other assistive technology such as the white cane or guide dog.
Researchers are hopeful the BrainPort device could become a bridge to independence for patients who lose sight. Dr. Nau is careful to not call BrainPort a quick fix; patients must train their brains to accept and interpret the images, she said.

The BrainPort vision device was developed by the late Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist. The technology is covered by patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (“WARF”) and is exclusively licensed to Wicab. The BrainPort was approved for sale in Canada in September 2013.  Wicab Inc. is pursuing FDA clearance and commercialization. Wicab Inc. is a biomedical engineering company in Middleton, WI.

Illustration:  Wicab, Inc.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Times Herald

Pittsburgh Business Times

Fox Center for Vision Restoration: Sensory Substitution—Seeing With Our Tongues

YouTube (featuring Dr. Amy Nau): BrainPort Vision Device

The Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration