Utah Electrode Array


Microchip Technology May Help Blind People
by Jared Whitley
Daily Utah Chronicle

Source: Excite News

December 11, 2000

(U-WIRE) SALT LAKE CITY -- On "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the Enterprise's chief engineer Geordai LaForge wore a bionic visual device allowing the otherwise blind character to see.

Such technology is stepping out of the future and into the present in the form of a microchip called the Utah Electrode Array, designed by the University of Utah's Center for Neural Interfaces Director Richard Normann.

The technology would be applicable to the blind who had lost their sight through accident or disease, rather than those born blind, Normann said.

When implanted into the brain's visual cortex, the chip will allow blind patients to see through a pair of eyeglasses, specially fitted with tiny cameras and a small transmitter. The glasses are no larger than a standard pair.

"The things that we're doing will definitely help people," said Normann, also a professor of ophthalmology, physiology and bioengineering.

Normann compared the .25 by .25 square inch, 2/10 millimeter thick chip to a micro silicon hairbrush.

"When this is implanted into the sensory part of the brain, we can listen into the neuro activity of this part of the brain," he said. By enabling scientists to "listen" and "talk" to the nervous system, the array will create new therapeutic approaches to nerve-damaged conditions.

"We're not just talking about artificial vision, although that's clearly our main focus," Normann said.

Micro-array technology could potentially also control chronic pain and bowel function in people with spinal cord injuries. The hearing impaired or deaf could benefit from an auditory nerve implant.

Scientists could also implant the micro-electrode array into the brain's motor cortex, which governs coordination, among other things, Normann said. If in a quadrapalegic, like Christopher Reeves, the array could allow him control of a wheelchair, computer keyboard or robotic arm.

"I'm optimistic that this is definitely going to work, but it's not going to work next week," Normann said.

To help bring this technology to the market, Normann founded Bionic Technologies with Brian Hatt, a University of Birmingham, England chemistry professor-turned business consultant.

"It's very satisfying to take a technology from a research world to market," Hatt said. "It's a worthwhile project and we're enjoying it."

Bionic Technologies sells ready to-go data systems to neuroscience researchers. Since its creation in 1996, Bionic Technologies has received more than $3 million in small business innovative research grants, which help small companies develop products that they couldn't otherwise.

"It's a long haul between doing something on a research basis and actually having products," Hatt said.

Hatt hesitated to speculate as to the price of a pair of outfitted eyeglasses and the microchip, but said it would be an "affordable technology."

Success of micro-electrode array technology would benefit not only the visually impaired, but the U's ophthalmology department and the John A. Moran Eye Center's standing in the academic community as well.

"If this were to occur, it would be fantastic to us in terms of our recognition," said Eric Lasater, director of research at the Moran Eye Center. "We would be on the map big time. It'll shoot (our) recognition to the top of the scale."

With more than a decade of research in this field behind him, Normann estimated he will be ready to implant micro-array technology in volunteers in three years.

"We're not ready to do artificial vision just yet," he said, noting that future research will help him better understand how the brain processes information. "If we can do that, then the rest is just technology."

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