The invention that promises to restore sight by placing a system of solar panels on the retina of the eyes

The invention that promises to restore sight by placing a system of solar panels on the retina of the eyes
The invention that promises to restore sight by placing a system of solar panels on the retina of the eyes

Three out of every four adults in Spain have vision problems, mainly myopia, according to various studies. However, thanks to new technologies there are innovative inventions that help these people function in the world and be more independent. For example, there are headphones that identify any object in seconds or smart glasses so that the blind can ‘see’ through sound. Now, some scientists have gone one step further: they are looking place solar panels in the eyes to recover sight.

Implanting small photovoltaic panels in people’s eyeballs may seem like science fiction, but that’s just what a team of Australian scientists are planning. Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney are working on a prototype of a solar device that can be implanted in the retina of the eye. Modules that are exactly the same as those currently used to convert sunlight into electricity, only much smaller and thinner.

Neuroprostheses, devices designed to interact with the nervous system and recover lost functionality, are a relatively new field that can greatly improve quality of life, as the researchers indicate in a press release. One of the best known is the cochlear implant, which converts sound into electrical signals that are used to stimulate the auditory nerve and restore hearing. This approach is what the team of Australian scientists is exploring with the human eye to solve vision loss.

A solar cell.

Blue Origin

Omicrono

“People with certain diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration slowly lose sight as photoreceptors degenerate of the center of the eye,” explains Udo Roemer, an expert photovoltaic engineer at UNSW and one of the researchers conducting the study. The group he leads is made up of neuroscientific engineers, doctors and other biotechnology experts who believe that it is completely It is feasible to use solar panels in the eyes to restore sight.

Solar panels in the eyes

Roemer and his team are currently investigating how use solar technology to convert light entering the eye into electricity, which would prevent the photoreceptors from being damaged to transmit visual information to the brain. Instead of building new photoreceptor cells, researchers have experimented with electrodes that create voltage pulses. These prototypes work, but they require the use of cables, making it a complicated and cumbersome procedure.

An eye.

stock photo

iStock

“It has long been thought that biomedical implants in the retina could replace damaged photoreceptors. One way to do this is to use electrodes to create tension pulses that allow a tiny dot to be seen. Trials have already been done with this technology. But the problem is that they require cables that are inserted into the eye, which is a complicated procedure,” explains the engineer.

Researchers are now working on the idea of ​​using a tiny solar panel that attaches to the eyeball and converts incoming light into an electrical impulse that the brain would use to create visual fields. A photovoltaic panel that would be naturally self-powered and portablethus eliminating the need to have cables and wires in the eyes.

[El invento que jubilará a los perros guía: un cinturón que detecta obstáculos y avisa con vibraciones]

This is not the first time this idea has been experimented with. However, unlike others, Roemer instead of focusing on devices based on silicon – available in abundance -, has focused its attention on other semiconductor materials, such as gallium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide to develop its solar panels. This is mainly because they are easier to work with and their properties can be modified to quickly adapt to an application, although they are more expensive.

These materials are often used in the solar industry in general to manufacture more efficient photovoltaic panels. “To stimulate neurons a higher voltage is needed than that obtained with a solar cell. If we imagine that photoreceptors are pixels, we actually need three solar cells to create enough voltage to send to the brain. So we are studying how to stack them, one on top of the other, to achieve this,” says the engineer. And for this they have preferred gallium, since it is easier to stack than silicon.

A small size

This investigation is currently located in a proof of concept phase, although scientists have already managed to “place two solar cells on top of each other in the laboratory on a large surface, approximately one square centimeter, with which we have obtained good results.” The team’s next step is to convert them into tiny pixels that allow them to be seen and record the slots to separate them.

They will then increase the size of the battery to three solar cells. By the time this technology can be tested in humans after extensive laboratory tests – and after tests on animals -, Roemer predicts that The device will have a size of about two square millimeters with 50 micrometer pixels. He even emphasizes that there is still a long way to go before this idea can be implanted in the retinas of people with eye diseases.

A flexible solar cell from MIT.

Melanie Gonick, MIT

Omicrono

“You have to keep in mind that, even with the efficiency of stacked solar cells, sunlight alone may not be powerful enough to work with these solar cells implanted in the retina,” says Roemer. The engineer also points out that “it is possible that people will have to wear some type of glasses or smart glasses that work in tandem with the solar cells that are capable of amplifying the solar signal at the required intensity needed to reliably stimulate the neurons in the eye.”

 
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