Zapping the brain with electrical pulses allows blind patients to ‘see’ letters

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Credit: Michael S.Beauchamp

Scientists sent patterns of electricity coursing across people’s brains, coaxing their brains to see letters that weren’t there. 

The experiment worked in both sighted people and blind participants who had lost their sight in adulthood, according to the study, published today (May 14) in the journal Cell. Although this technology remains in its early days, implanted devices could potentially be used in the future to stimulate the brain and somewhat restore people’s vision. 

Known as visual prosthetics, the implants were placed on the visual cortex and then stimulated in a pattern to “trace” out shapes that the participants could then “see.” More advanced versions of these implants could work similarly to cochlear implants, which stimulate nerves of the inner ear with electrodes to help enhance the wearer’s hearing ability. 

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“An early iteration [of such a device] could provide detection of the contours of shapes encountered,” study authors neuroscientist Michael Beauchamp and neurosurgeon Dr. Daniel Yoshor, both at the Baylor College of Medicine, told Live Science in an email.

“The ability to detect the form of a family member or to allow more independent navigation would be a wonderful advance for many blind patients,” [the researchers said.]

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